Judge: Fed labor law grounds lawsuit vs American Airlines over shut down of mechanics' hiring incentive program

By Scott Holland | Dec 20, 2017

A federal judge has dismissed an American Airlines worker’s class action over the removal of a special training and advancement program.

A federal judge has dismissed an American Airlines worker’s class action over the removal of a special training and advancement program.

In an opinion issued Dec. 18 in Chicago, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey said American Airlines mechanic Thomas Ballard is not allowed to sue the company for fraud, breach of contract and unjust enrichment, among other claims, because his allegations are preempted under the Railway Labor Act.

Ballard filed his complaint Feb. 28 in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming the airline hired him and perhaps hundreds of other workers under the promise of working under a special program under which they would rocket to the top of the company’s wage scale within three years, only to quickly cancel the program soon after he took the job.

According to the lawsuit, Ballard had 24 years of relevant experience in March 2015 when he left a job paying him $30 per hour to work for American in its flex pay program. Ballard said he and others like him were credited with three years of employment when they started, letting them “achieve the five-year top-of-scale hourly wage of $48 in two years.”

In August 2015, the TWU/IAM Mechanic Association told members like Ballard that American was shutting down the program and would “back out of, and not honor” the flex schedule and that the union opted not to fight the program shutdown, “since it only affected 5 percent to 6 percent of the employees.”

American moved to dismiss Ballard’s complaint, saying the RLA requires salaries, rules and other working conditions be negotiated with unions. As such, that federal law governs the entire collective bargaining process. Blakey referenced a 1959 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon that held any activity governed by the National Labor Relations Act is under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, not state or federal courts.

Blakey explained Garmon preemption is not absolute, but agreed with American’s assertion that Ballard’s claims “directly challenge collective bargaining negotiations, which are governed by the RLA, and thus are preempted.”

Ballard argued his claim did not come from the union contract but rather his understanding of the airline’s program that led him to accept the job, a choice made before he began his union membership. That strategy, Blakey wrote, amounted to Ballard saying “he and American entered into an oral contract during his hiring interview, and that this breached contract existed independently of the CBA.”

However, Blakey said that approach failed in light of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1996 finding, in Espinal v. Northwest Airlines, that an existing union contract supersedes individual hiring agreements once a worker joins the union.

That decision negated all of Ballard’s claims in federal court, and Blakey said the same logic applies to his state-law claims, since all arose from the collective bargaining agreement in August 2016 that ended the flex scale program. By joining the union when he was hired, Blakey explained, Ballard accepted the CBA’s benefits and terms that would be negotiated in the future.

“Collective bargaining negotiations like this are not merely of ‘peripheral concern’ to the Board and federal law,” Blakey wrote. “Rather, these negotiations are central to the purpose of the RLA.”

Ballard was represented in the action by attorney Larry D. Drury, of Chicago.

American Airlines was represented by attorneys with the firms of O'Melveny & Myers LLP, of New York, and Kaplan Massamillo & Andrews, of Chicago.

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American Airlines Kaplan Massamillo & Andrews Larry D. Drury Ltd. O'Melveny & Myers U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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