February 1999

Workplace Labor Update - LMRA Doesn’t Preempt Wrongful Discharge Claim – February 1999

3 min

The federal appeals court for Virginia and Maryland recently held that an employee's wrongful discharge claim based on state common law was not preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) of 1947. Owen v. Carpenters District Council, 1998 WL 823432 (4th Cir. 1998).

Owen v. Carpenters District Council involved an employee's state law claim that she was wrongfully discharged for rebuffing her supervisor's sexual advances and complaining about sexual harassment. In response to the plaintiff's charge of unlawful discrimination and retaliation, the employer contended that the plaintiff's employment was terminated not for discriminatory reasons but because of inconsistencies and misstatements on her resume.

The terms and conditions of the plaintiff's employment were governed by a collective bargaining agreement between the plaintiff's union and her former employer. Pursuant to that agreement, employees could be discharged only for “just and sufficient cause.” The agreement also established a mandatory grievance procedure for any dispute relating to the application or interpretation of the agreement's provisions or any matter related to wages, hours, or working conditions. If the dispute was not resolved through the grievance procedure, the agreement called for the parties to proceed to arbitration.

When the plaintiff was discharged, the union filed a grievance on her behalf. At the plaintiff's request, however, the union withdrew the grievance prior to its resolution through arbitration. Nine months later, the plaintiff filed suit in state court. The employer removed the action to federal court, claiming that the wrongful discharge claim was preempted by &#sect; 301 of the LMRA.

Aimed at promoting the uniform interpretation of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), Section 301 is the provision that confers jurisdiction on federal courts to hear labor disputes. Thus, instead of allowing states to develop inconsistent and varied approaches, the federal courts preempt state courts and apply uniform federal labor law doctrines to interpreting CBAs. In enforcing collective bargaining agreements under &#sect; 301, federal courts have held that parties must fulfill their contractual obligations to arbitrate grievances. Based on this principle and its conclusion that the plaintiff's wrongful discharge claim was preempted by &#sect; 301, the District Court dismissed the claim on the ground that she had failed to exhaust her contractual remedies.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court's ruling, concluding that &#sect; 301 of the LMRA did not preempt the plaintiff's state-law wrongful discharge claim. In reaching this decision, the Fourth Circuit explained that “preemption occurs when resolution of a state law claim depends on the meaning of the collective bargaining agreement, or when resolution of the state law claim is ‘inextricably intertwined with consideration of the terms of the labor contract,'” but the mere fact that the court must consult a collective bargaining agreement does not mean that the claim is preempted. Observing that the plaintiff's wrongful discharge claim turned on whether she was discharged for misstatements on her resume, as opposed to unlawful discrimination, the Court reasoned that the claim was not preempted because resolution of these factual questions would not require any reference to the collective bargaining agreement. Rather, the critical inquiry in this case would be the conduct of the plaintiff and the conduct and motivation of the employer, not the meaning of the collective bargaining agreement. As the Court summarized, “even if dispute resolution pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement, on the one hand, and state law, on the other, would require addressing precisely the same set of facts, as long as the state-law claim can be resolved without interpreting the agreement itself, the claim is ‘independent' of the agreement for &#sect; 301 preemption purposes.” The Court also noted that its conclusion in this case was consistent with other cases in which it previously has held that tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and state-law claims of handicap discrimination and retaliation were not preempted by the LMRA.