AVIATION / Under the Railway Labor Act pilot’s claims under his collective bargaining agreement were subject to mandatory arbitration and the federal district court had lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear them.

The gist of the opinion is that the Railway Labor Act sets up a comprehensive framework of labor relations for the purpose of avoiding disruption to railroads and airlines due to labor disputes. What this plaintiff claims – relating to his termination – amounts to a “minor dispute” under the Railway Labor Act. 

Stewart v. Spirit Airlines, Inc., Slip copy, 2013 WL 135114 (U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, January 10, 2013). Free copy available here

This pilot’s allegations lacked the “substantial level” of “anti-union animus” required to bring this dispute within the jurisdiction of the federal district court. 

“The RLA was designed to avoid interruptions to commerce or to the operation of the railway or airline industries caused by labor management disputes. See 45 U.S.C. § 151a(1);[2] see also Geddes v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 321 F.3d 1349, 1353-54 (11th Cir. 2003). The RLA sets up a comprehensive alternative dispute resolution framework, placing exclusive jurisdiction of many labor management disputes within a system of adjustment boards.

“Under the RLA, federal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over disputes which are “grounded in the [collective bargaining agreement],” Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 256, 114 S. Ct. 2239, 2245 (1994), and “involve controversies over the meaning of an existing collective bargaining agreement in a particular fact situation,” id. at 253, 114 S. Ct. at 2244 (internal quotation marks omitted). Such disputes are labeled as “minor disputes” under the RLA and are subject to mandatory arbitration by the adjustment boards. Id. at 253, 114 S. Ct. at 2244. However, the RLA’s alternative dispute resolution scheme does not preempt causes of action to enforce rights that are independent of the collective bargaining agreement, including statutory rights. Id. at 256, 114 S. Ct. at 2246.

“One statutory right under the RLA is found in § 152, Fourth which grants employees the right to organize a union and to collectively bargain. Section 152, Fourth also provides, in pertinent part, that it is unlawful to “interfere in any way with the organization of its employees” as follows:

“No carrier, its officers, or agents shall deny or in any way question the right of its employees to join, organize, or assist in organizing the labor organization of their choice, and it shall be unlawful for any carrier to interfere in any way with the organization of its employees . . . . 45 U.S.C. § 152, Fourth.

“Some courts have interpreted this provision to grant employees an implied private cause of action to sue when wrongfully discharged for participation in activities to organize a union in the workplace. See, e.g., Bensel v. Allied Pilots Ass’n, 387 F.3d 298, 318 (3d Cir. 2004) (collecting cases in which courts have recognized an implied private cause of action under sections of the RLA).[3]

“However, § 152, Fourth has been narrowly interpreted in two important respects. First, § 152, Fourth only protects employees in their efforts to join or organize a union. For instance, while the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) specifically protects employees in efforts to seek improved terms and conditions of employment for “mutual aid or protection,” see 29 U.S.C. § 157; New River Indus. v. N.L.R.B., 945 F.2d 1290, 1294-95 (4th Cir. 1991), the RLA does not. Johnson v. Express One Int’l, Inc., 944 F.2d 247, 251-52 (5th Cir. 1991) (The RLA does not provide a basis for the plaintiff to have a coworker attend an investigatory interview because the RLA does not seek “to preserve employees’ rights to act in concert for `mutual aid or protection.’” In contrast to the NLRA, “the RLA protects the employees’ right to establish a union.”); see also Indep. Union of Flight Attendants v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 789 F.2d 139, 141 n.2 (2d Cir. 1986) (“[T]he general restriction of the scope of the [RLA] to organizing and representational rights, as opposed to the broader `concerted activity’ rights . . ., is clearly supported by the legislative history.”). Thus, an employee’s activities are protected under § 152, Fourth of the RLA only if the employee was attempting to “join, organize, or assist in organizing [a] labor organization,” or to exercise his right to “organize and bargain collectively.” § 152, Fourth; see also, e.g., Johnson, 944 F.2d at 252; Herring v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 894 F.2d 1020, 1023 (9th Cir. 1990) (“No private cause of action exists under the RLA for a group of employees who assert retaliatory conduct based upon employee activities which bear no relationship to establishing a union . . . .”).

“Second, courts have narrowly circumscribed the instances in which an employee may bring a § 152, Fourth statutory claim after a union has been certified. As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, § 152, Fourth primarily addresses the “precertification rights and freedoms of unorganized employees.” Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Indep. Fed’n of Flight Attendants, 489 U.S. 426, 440, 109 S. Ct. 1225, 1234 (1989). This is because, once a union is certified, the RLA dispute resolution system is put in place and judicial intervention is generally unnecessary and undesirable. Id. at 441, 109 S. Ct. at 1234-35. Post-certification disputes are usually left to the alternative dispute resolution process described above.

“Thus, our sister circuits have permitted judicial intervention in post-certification RLA cases in only limited circumstances….”