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Nadeau v. Twin Rivers Paper Company, LLC

Superior Court of Maine, Aroostook

November 13, 2019

BERNARD NADEAU, Plaintiff,
v.
TWIN RIVERS PAPER COMPANY, LLC Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Hon. Harold Stewart, Justice

         Now before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment seeking dismissal of Plaintiffs single-count complaint for retaliation under the Maine Whistleblowers' Protection Act ("MWPA"). See 26 M.R.S. §§ 831-840 (2018). The defendant, Twin Pavers Paper Company, argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiffs MWPA claim is preempted by § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"). See 29 U.S.C. § 185(a).

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is granted to a moving party where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and the moving party "is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." M.R. Civ. P. 56(c). A material fact is one that can affect the outcome of the case. Lougee Conservancy v. City Mortgage, Inc., 2012 ME 103, ¶ 11, 48 A.3d 774. A genuine issue of fact exists when there is sufficient evidence for a fact-finder to choose between competing versions of the fact. Id. When reviewing the record on a motion for summary judgment, a court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Cormier v. Genesis Healthcare LLC, 2015 ME 161, ¶ 7, 129 A.3d 944. "Any doubt on this score will be resolved against the movant, and the opposing party will be given the benefit of any inferences which might reasonably be drawn from the evidence." 3 Harvey, Maine Civil Practice § 56:5 at 240 (3d, 2011 ed.) A party seeking to avoid summary judgment must present a prima facie case for the claim or defense that is asserted for which it has the burden of proof. Flaherty v. Muther, 2011 ME 32, ¶ 31, 17A.3d 640.

         Background

         The following material facts are not in genuine dispute;

         Nadeau was employed by the defendant Twin Rivers Paper Company as a yard employee, mostly working as a forklift operator at the company's mill in Madawaska, Maine. During his employment, Nadeau was a member of the United Steelworkers Union ("Union") and worked under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") negotiated by the Union and Twin Rivers management. (Nadeau Dep. 54, ) (Nadeau Dep. Ex. 3.) The CBA established work rules, company policies, and disciplinary procedures including a grievance process for all employees at the Madawaska Mill.

         In February 2015, Nadeau was transferred to work in the basement distribution area of the mill. After his transfer, Nadeau complained to his supervisor on multiple occasions about dangerous conditions caused by toxic chemicals and dust in the work area. (Pl's Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J, 1.) In November 2015, Nadeau was disciplined under the CBA for unloading a tractor-trailer with a forklift without first locking the brakes and chocking the wheel, a violation of the company's safe truck operation policy. (Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 20-31.) The parties agree that Last Chance Agreements ("LCA") are recognized in the CBA and that these LCAs are negotiated among the company management, employee, and Union when the company has a strong basis for terminating an employee under the CBA but is willing to give the employee a final chance to satisfactorily perform and maintain their job. (Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 32-33.) After the November 2015 disciplinary incident, Nadeau, company management, and the union entered into an LCA. (Supp.'g S.M.F. 36.) Nadeau signed the LCA agreement on December 1? 2015 and agreed to return to work under the agreement. (Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 35). The LCA provided that Nadeau would be required to adhere to all work rules outlined in the CBA, (Supp.'g S.M.F. 36.) (Nadeau Dep. 112-113.) If Nadeau failed to adhere to these work rules he would be subject to immediate termination, without the right to arbitration normally provided by the CBA. (Supp.'g S.M.F, 37.) (Nadeau Dep. 113.) Nadeau contends that Ms placement on an LCA was a retaliation for his complaints about unsafe working conditions and that the use of the LCA was an inconsistent application of discipline, compared to other coworkers who violated the same safety policy. (Pl's Opp'n to Def's Mot. Summ, J. 16-17.)

         While driving the forldift on August 27, 2016, Nadeau's fork lift made some contact with a core saw at the Twin River's mill. (Nadeau Dep. 130-131.) Nadeau did riot believe he caused any damage to the saw at the time and did not report the accident. (Nadeau Dep. 136, 146-148, 167.) After the accident, Twin River's management became aware of some damage to the core saw and investigated. (Supp.'g S.M.F, ¶ 49-60.) After this internal investigation, Twin Rivers concluded that Nadeau\s accident damaged the saw. (Supp.'g S.M.F. 1! 65.) Twin Rivers further concluded that by striking the core saw and failing to report the accident Nadeau had violated the CBA's disciplinary rules and was subject to termination under the LCA. Id. Nadeau then brought a grievance challenging his termination, which resulted in Twin Rivers offering to allow Nadeau to resign. (Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 68.) Nadeau and the union declined this offer and Twin Rivers terminated Nadeau's employment. (Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 70.) Nadeau then filed this suit alleging his discharge was a retaliatory termination in violation of the MWPA.

         Discussion

         Defendant argues that its motion for summary judgment should be granted because Nadeau's MWPA claim is preempted by § 301(a) of the LMRA, This federal statute provides:

Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce as defined in this chapter .. . may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties, without respect to the amount in controversy or without regard to the citizenship of the parties.

29 U.S.C. § 185(a). The United States Supreme Court has interpreted this language to preclude state-law claims "whenever resolution of a state-law claim is substantially dependent upon analysis of the terms" of a collective bargaining agreement. Allis-Chalmers Corp, v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 220 (1985); Lydon v. Boston Sand & Gravel Co., 175 F.3d 6, 10 (1st Cir. 1999); see also Flores-Flores v. Horizon Lines of Puerto Rico, Inc., S75 F, Supp. 2d 90, 93-94 (D.P.R. 2012) ("[T]he court has expressly extended complete preemption to state law claims 'founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements' or 'substantially dependent on analysis of a collective-bargaining agreement.', .. If one of those circumstances is satisfied, 'the preemptive force of 301 is so powerful as to displace entirely any state cause of action."1 (Quoting Caterpilar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 394 (1987))), However, not all labor dispntes brought in the form of a state-law claim are preempted under this standard.

         A state-law claim is preempted by § 301 only when there is a real interpretive dispute of a CBA's terms. Martin v. Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc.,105 F.3d 40, 42 (1st Cir, 1997). The mere consultation of a CBA in the course of litigating a state-law claim is not sufficient to extinguish the state-law claim. Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 124 (1994). Instead, courts confronted with state law claims must "locate the line between the need for mere consultation of a CBA, which does not demand federal ...


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