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Coomes v. Republic Airline Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

June 11, 2019

JOHN J. COOMES, Plaintiff,
v.
REPUBLIC AIRLINE, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

          JAMES R. SWEENEY II, JUDGE

         Introduction

          Plaintiff John Coomes, pro se, brought two claims alleging breach of contract by his employer, Defendant, Republic Airline, Inc. (See ECF No. 1-3, Compl.) Defendant, by counsel, moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151, et seq. (hereinafter RLA). (See ECF No. 6, Def.'s Mot. Dismiss.) The Court, having considered said Motion, now finds that the Motion should be GRANTED with leave for Plaintiff to amend.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff works for Defendant as a pilot. (See ECF No. 1-3, Compl. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff is a member of Defendant's pilots' union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Airline Division, Local 357 (“the Union”).[1] (See ECF No. 7, Def.'s Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss (hereinafter Def.'s Br.) ¶¶ 1-2.) Defendant and the Union entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), which establishes compensation for Defendant's pilots. (See Id. ¶¶ 3-4; ECF No. 1-3, Compl., Ex. 5, Art. 3 at 90-103.) “In compliance with Section 204, Title II” of the RLA, Article 18-F of the CBA establishes “a System Board of Adjustment for the purpose of adjusting and deciding disputes which may arise under the terms of the [CBA] . . . .” (Id., Ex. 5, Art. 18-F, at 304.) Plaintiff alleges Defendant failed to pay both a bonus (Claim 1) and adequate rate of pay (Claim 2) due under the terms of the CBA. (See Id. ¶¶ 1-7, 9-21.) The Union did not pursue either of Plaintiffs claims in arbitration “due to cost considerations.” (Id. ¶¶ 1, 9.) Defendant now moves to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to the mandatory arbitration provisions of the RLA that govern the CBA. (See ECF No. 6, Def.'s Mot. Dismiss; RLA § 151 et seq.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiffs claims for a withheld bonus and inadequate rate of pay for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. When challenged, the party invoking the court's subject-matter jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing it. See Thomson v. Gaskill, 315 U.S. 442, 446 (1942). That party “must establish the district court's jurisdiction over each of their claims independently.” Rifkin v. Bear Stearns & Co., 248 F.3d 628, 634 (7th Cir. 2001). When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a “district court must accept the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draw reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor.” Reuth v. EPA, 13 F.3d 227, 229 (7th Cir. 1993). Attacks on a court's jurisdiction must be considered and resolved before addressing other motions that implicate a claim's merits. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 101 (1998). Unless subject matter jurisdiction cannot be truthfully averred, a court should permit leave to amend defective allegations. See Leaf v. Supreme Court of State of Wis., 979 F.2d 589, 595 (7th Cir. 1992).

         III. Discussion

         A. Plaintiff's Claims Are Preempted by the RLA

         Defendant alleges that Plaintiff's contractual claims are preempted by the RLA. Whether federal law pre-empts a state law establishing a cause of action “is a question of congressional intent.” Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 252 (1994) (citing Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 208 (1985)). The RLA expressly aims “to provide for the prompt and orderly settlement of all disputes growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of [collective bargaining] agreements . . . .” RLA § 151a. To this end, the RLA “establishes a mandatory arbitral mechanism” for the settlement of “two classes” of such disputes: major and minor. Hawaiian, 512 U.S. at 252 (citing RLA § 151a). “Major disputes relate to the formation of collective [bargaining] agreements or efforts to secure them.” Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945). “[M]inor” disputes regard “the interpretation or application of [collective bargaining] agreements . . . .” Hawaiian, 512 U.S. at 252 (citing RLA § 151a). Thus, “major disputes seek to create contractual rights, minor disputes to enforce them.” Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor Execs.' Ass'n, 491 U.S. 299, 302 (1989) (citing Burley, 325 U.S. at 723). The Seventh Circuit has instructed courts to “characterize a dispute as minor if it is even ‘arguably justified' that the dispute turns on the application of [a] CBA.” Coker v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 165 F.3d 579, 583 (7th Cir. 1999) (quoting Hawaiian, 512 U.S. at 256). “All minor disputes must be adjudicated under RLA mechanisms, which include an employer's internal dispute-resolution procedures and an adjustment board established by the unions and the employer.” Monroe v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 115 F.3d 514, 516 (7th Cir. 1997).

         Here, Plaintiff asserts both claims “involve[] major disputes . . . not subject to mandatory arbitration.” (ECF No. 10, Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Dismiss (hereinafter Pl.'s Mem.) ¶¶ 7, 9.) Plaintiff offers no support for this assertion. Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, “the formal demarcation between major and minor disputes does not turn on a case-by-case determination of the importance of the issue presented.” Consol. Rail, 491 U.S. at 305. Both of Plaintiff's claims seek to enforce existing alleged contractual rights derived from the CBA. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges Defendant “refused to pay Plaintiff a bonus that was due under [the] collective bargaining agreement” and “failed to abide by the [CBA] regarding Plaintiff's pay status and training.” (ECF No. 1-3, Compl. ¶¶ 1, 9 (emphasis added).) Thus, these claims are unambiguously “minor” under the Seventh Circuit and Supreme Court's interpretation of the RLA; they seek to enforce existing contractual rights that turn on “interpretation or application” of the CBA. See Hawaiian, 512 U.S. at 252; Coker, 165 F.3d at 583. The “factual particularities” of Plaintiff's complaint “require an interpretation of the CBA and thus mandate [a] finding of preemption.” Monroe, 115 F.3d at 519.

         B. Plaintiff's Claims Are Not Exempt from Preemption

         Plaintiff's claims are not exempt from the arbitration requirements of the RLA due to estoppel of Defendant. Citing Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 185 (1967), Plaintiff argues he “should not be limited to the exclusive remedial procedures established by [the CBA].” (ECF No. 10, Pl.'s Mem. ¶ 5.) The Supreme Court in Vaca stated a party may be excused from required contractual procedures when “the conduct of the [other party] amounts to a repudiation of those contractual procedures . . . .” 386 U.S. at 185. The Supreme Court in Vaca cited Drake Bakeries, Inc. v. Local 50, Am. Bakery, etc., Workers, 370 U.S. 254 (1962), to support this assertion. However, in Drake, the Supreme Court merely alluded to the possibility that total repudiation of a contract might excuse a party from arbitration. In fact, the Drake Court explained that even an alleged strike by unionized workers was not “such a breach or repudiation of the arbitration clause” that a party is “excused from arbitrating, upon theories of waiver, estoppel, or otherwise.” 370 U.S. at 262. “Arbitration provisions, which themselves have not been repudiated, are meant to survive breaches of contract, in many contexts, even total breach[.]” Id.

         In the instant case, Defendant's actions do not rise to a “repudiation” of the contractual procedures as required for ...


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