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Kehoe v. Thornton Academy

United States District Court, D. Maine

January 25, 2017

JILL A. KEHOE, Plaintiff,


          Nancy Torresen United States Chief District Judge

         Before me is the Plaintiff's motion to remand to state court her Amended Complaint asserting sex discrimination in violation of state law. At issue is whether the Plaintiff's single remaining claim presents a federal question because it requires me to interpret a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the Trustees of Thornton Academy and the Thornton Academy Teachers Union. CBA (ECF No. 16-1). If the resolution of the state law claim depends upon the meaning of the CBA, then the claim is completely preempted by federal labor law. If the state law claim is independent of the CBA, then I must remand for lack of federal jurisdiction. For the reasons stated below, I GRANT the Plaintiff's motion to remand.


         The Plaintiff filed a two-count Complaint in the Maine Superior Court alleging sex discrimination in violation of the Maine Equal Pay Law, 26 M.R.S.A. § 628, and breach of the CBA. The Defendant Thornton Academy removed the complaint to this Court and filed a motion to dismiss. Notice of Removal (ECF No. 1); Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss (ECF No. 7). The Defendant's notice of removal asserts that this Court has federal question jurisdiction over the claims alleged in the complaint under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-87. Notice of Removal 2. In the motion to dismiss, the Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's claims are preempted by the LMRA and that an arbitrator's decision adverse to Ms. Kehoe is the final and binding resolution of her claims. Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss 5-9.

         Approximately a week after the Motion to Dismiss was filed, the Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, in which she dropped her breach of contract claim and asserted only the sex discrimination claim under the Maine Equal Pay Law. Amended Compl. (ECF No. 8). Plaintiff then moved to remand her case to state court on the ground that her sex discrimination claim is not preempted by federal law because it is not dependent on an interpretation of the CBA. Pl.'s Mot. to Remand (ECF No. 10).


         I. The Governing Law

         Federal district courts have original jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. “The gates of federal question jurisdiction are customarily patrolled by a steely-eyed sentry-the well-pleaded complaint rule . . . .” BIW Deceived v. Local S6, Indus. Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers, 132 F.3d 824, 830 (1st Cir. 1997) (citation omitted). Under that rule, “federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint.” Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). The plaintiff, as “master of the claim, ” can “avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.” Id.

         There is an “independent corollary to the well-pleaded complaint rule known as the complete pre-emption doctrine, ”[1] and it has long been applied to § 301 of the LMRA. Id. at 393 (internal citation and quotations omitted). Section 301 provides that “[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees . . . may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties” without regard to the amount in controversy or diversity. 29 U.S.C. § 185(a). The Supreme Court has determined that the “preemptive force of § 301 is so powerful as to displace entirely any state cause of action for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization. Any such suit is purely a creature of federal law.” Franchise Tax Board of Cal. v. Constr. Laborers Vacation Trust for S. Cal., 463 U.S. 1, 23 (1983) (footnote and internal quotations omitted).

         The Supreme Court has expanded the complete preemption doctrine beyond suits alleging just contract violations in order to prevent plaintiffs from evading the doctrine of complete preemption by artful pleading. See Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 219-20 (1985). “If the resolution of a state-law claim depends upon the meaning of a collective-bargaining agreement, the application of state law . . . is preempted and federal labor-law principles . . . must be employed to resolve the dispute.” Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc., 486 U.S. 399, 405-06 (1988) (emphasis added).

         There are two ways that a Plaintiff's claim can “depend[] upon the meaning of a collective-bargaining agreement.” Id. at 406. First, “a claim can allege the violation of a duty that arises from the CBA, ” and second, “a claim can require a court to interpret a specific provision of the CBA.” BIW Deceived, 132 F.3d at 829. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has dubbed these two ways as the “ ‘duty' rubric” and the “ ‘interpretation' rubric.” Id. at 830; see also Rueli v. Baystate Health, Inc., 835 F.3d 53, 58 (1st Cir. 2016) (“claims must either be ‘founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements' or ‘substantially dependent on analysis of a collective-bargaining agreement' ” (quoting Caterpillar, 482 U.S. at 394)). Here, the Defendant argues that the Plaintiff's sex discrimination claim requires the court to interpret two provisions of the CBA-Article II (“Teacher Employment”) and Article X (“Salaries”).

         Under the interpretation rubric, I focus on “whether ‘resolution' of a claim ‘arguably hinges upon an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement.' ” Rueli, 835 F.3d at 58 (quoting Flibotte v. Penn. Truck Lines, Inc., 131 F.3d 21, 26 (1st Cir. 1997)). In Rueli the First Circuit explained that the qualifier “arguably” is necessary because at the outset of a case when defendants remove to federal court, “we cannot know the exact contours of the wage dispute and the precise CBA terms likely to require interpretation cannot be certain.” Id. at 58-59 (quoting Cavallaro v. UMass Mem'l Healthcare, Inc., 678 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 2012)). The emphasis under the interpretation prong is on “the legal character of a claim, ” not its underlying facts. Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 123 (1994).

         “Though section 301 is omnipotent within its sphere, it is not endlessly expansive.” BIW Deceived, 132 F.3d at 830. It does not preempt “nonnegotiable rights conferred on individual employees as a matter of state law, ” Livadas, 512 U.S. at 123, and “purely factual questions about an employee's conduct or an employer's conduct and motives do not require a court to interpret any term of a collective-bargaining agreement, ” Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 261 (1994) (quoting Lingle, 486 U.S. at 407); see also BIW Deceived, 132 F.3d at 830.

         In Lingle, the Supreme Court found that a plaintiff's state claim for retaliatory discharge was not preempted even though it was based on the same facts as the plaintiff's grievance filed under the collective bargaining agreement's ...

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