CHICAGO (CN) - A former flight attendant suing United Air Lines for retaliatory discharge may do so at the state level, the 7th Circuit ruled Tuesday, joining three other federal appeals panels that have found the Railroad Labor Act does not necessarily make such cases a question of federal law.
While working for United, Constance Hughes was on medical leave for almost three years before she was cleared for work and completed requalification training. Less than a week before her first assignment, she fell at United's training facility and suffered new injuries that prevented her from flying. She was fired shortly thereafter.
Hughes claimed that United fired her in retaliation for her new fall-related worker's compensation claim, adding that the reaction violated a collective bargaining agreement that permits workers to retain seniority for three years during injury or illness. United argued that such termination was both routine and permissible under the agreement.
Hughes filed suit in Illinois state court, but United removed the claims to the federal court under the contention that the Railway Labor Act affords retaliatory discharge complaints "complete preemption."
Under the act's dispute resolution process, a systems board of adjustment must first hear the claim before litigation can begin.
Citing 7th Circuit case law, the District Court sided with United and dismissed the suit.
But a recent Supreme Court ruling had weakened the complete preemption doctrine, the three-judge appellate panel found.
"A retaliatory-discharge claim under Illinois law 'involves rights and obligations that exist independent of the CBA,'" Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote, referring to the collective bargaining agreement. "So a case does not necessarily require review by a systems board of adjustment, as would be required by federal law.
"A suit alleging an unfair labor practice filed in state court, and removed to federal court, will be dismissed rather than resolved on the merits," Easterbrook added.
The case will return to the state level for trial.
The 2nd, 9th and 11th Circuits have also issued similar rulings.