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Van v. American Airlines, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 1, 2019




         Plaintiffs, retired flight attendants, bring this action against their former employer, defendant American Airlines, Inc. ("American"), for eliminating one of their retirement benefits. They allege breach of contract, promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, and fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation. They also seek a permanent injunction reinstating the benefit.

         When plaintiffs retired, they were covered by collective bargaining agreements ("CBAs") that provided flight attendants who retired with 25 or more years of service, at age 45 or older, with free travel under the same priority boarding status as active employees (the "25/45 Benefit"). Plaintiffs qualified for this benefit. However, in 2014, after plaintiffs retired, American eliminated part of the 25/45 Benefit. As a result, plaintiffs no longer have the same priority boarding status as active employees.

         Plaintiffs brought suit in Massachusetts state court, and American timely removed to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. American now moves to dismiss, arguing that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction because the Railway Labor Act ("RLA"), 45 U.S.C. §151 et seq., preempts plaintiffs' claims.

         The RLA establishes mandatory procedures for resolving disputes between airlines and their employees. It categorizes disputes as "major" or "minor," and prescribes different procedures for each. In particular, the RLA vests exclusive jurisdiction over minor disputes with arbitration boards created by airlines and labor unions. A dispute is "minor" if its resolution requires interpretation of a CBA. Therefore, the RLA preempts any claim that requires interpretation of a CBA to resolve.

         The court finds that plaintiffs' claims for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and unjust enrichment require interpretation of CBAs. Therefore, the court is dismissing those claims. However, plaintiffs' claims for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation do not depend on interpretation of CBAs. Therefore, the court is denying American's Motion to Dismiss with regard to those claims.


         A. The Railway Labor Act ("RLA"), 45 U.S.C. §151 et seq.

         The RLA seeks to "promote stability in labor-management relations by providing a comprehensive framework for resolving labor disputes." Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 252 (1994). To do so, it establishes mandatory procedures for the resolution of labor disputes between common carriers and their employees, including airlines and flight attendants. See 4 5 U.S.C. §181 (extending RLA to "every common carrier by air engaged in interstate or foreign commerce"). However, the RLA's dispute resolution procedures differ for "major" v. "minor" disputes. "Major" disputes relate to "the formation of collective agreements or efforts to secure them." Elgin, J. & E. Ry. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945). "They arise where there is no such agreement or where it is sought to change the terms of one ." Id. Accordingly, in major disputes "the issue is not whether an existing agreement controls the controversy." Id.

         By contrast, "minor" disputes relate to "the meaning of an existing [CBA] in a particular fact situation, generally involving only one employee." Bhd. R.R. Trainmen v. Chi. River & Ind. R.R. Co., 353 U.S. 30, 33 (1957). They "gro[w] out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements covering rates of pay, rules, or working conditions." Hawaiian Airlines, 512 U.S. at 252-53 (quoting 45 U.S.C. §151a). Accordingly, in minor disputes the issue is "the interpretation and application of the parties' CBA." de la Rosa Sanchez v. E. Airlines, Inc., 574 F.2d 29, 31 (1st Cir. 1978).

         The RLA "requires air carriers and employees, acting through their representatives," to create "system boards of adjustment" to resolve minor disputes. Id. These boards have "exclusive primary jurisdiction" over such disputes. Pa. R.R. Co. v. Day, 360 U.S. 548, 550 (1959). "Thus, a determination that [plaintiffs'] complaints constitute a minor dispute would pre-empt [plaintiffs'] state-law actions." Hawaiian Airlines, 512 U.S. at 253.

         To determine whether a particular dispute is major or minor, the court does not rely on the cause of action. See Andrews v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co., 406 U.S. 320, 323-24 (1972). Otherwise, plaintiffs could "make an end-run around the jurisdictional scope of RLA by the use of an ingeniously framed complaint alleging a tort." de la Rosa Sanchez, 574 F.2d at 32. The key question is whether resolution of the dispute "hinges upon" interpretation of the CBA. Adames v. Exec. Airlines, Inc., 258 F.3d 7, 11 (1st Cir. 2001). If so, the dispute is minor.

         However, "claims requiring only consultation with the CBA, versus actual interpretation," are not preempted. Id. at 12. For example, the Supreme Court has stated that "purely factual questions about an employee's conduct or an employer's conduct and motives do not requir[e] a court to interpret any term of a [CBA] ." Hawaiian Airlines, 512 U.S. at 261 (internal quotation marks omitted) . A claim is only preempted if it "is dependent on the interpretation of a CBA." Id. at 262.

         B. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         "Once challenged, the party invoking subject matter jurisdiction [in this case plaintiffs] has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the facts supporting jurisdiction." Padilla-Manqual v. Pavia Hosp., 516 F.3d 29, 31 (1st Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). "There are two types of challenges to a court's subject matter jurisdiction: facial challenges and factual challenges." Torres-Neqron v. J & N Records, LLC, 504 F.3d 151, 162 (1st Cir. 2007).

         In a facial challenge, the movant argues that the pleadings do not sufficiently allege subject matter jurisdiction. See id; at 162 n.8 (citing 5C Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, §1363, at 653-54 (1969)). Therefore, the court accepts allegations in the complaint as true and decides whether, if proven, they would establish jurisdiction. See Id. at 162.

         In a factual challenge, the movant raises factual questions that "den[y] or controvert[] the pleader's allegations of jurisdiction." Id. at 162 n.8 (quoting citing 5C Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, §1363, at 653-54 (1969)). Here, American raises a factual challenge. It denies plaintiffs' allegations of jurisdiction, and has submitted copies of CBAs and arbitration board decisions as evidence. Plaintiffs have also submitted documents and affidavits. See, e.g., Dkt. No. 18.

         The standard a court uses to evaluate a factual challenge to its jurisdiction depends on "whether the relevant facts, which would determine the court's jurisdiction, also implicate elements of the plaintiff's cause of action." Id. at 163. When "the jurisdictional issue and substantive claims are so intertwined the resolution of the jurisdictional question is dependent on factual issues going to the merits, the district court should employ the standard applicable to a motion for summary judgment." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). However, when "the facts relevant to the jurisdictional inquiry are not intertwined with the merits of the plaintiff's claim . . . the [] court is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In this case, the jurisdictional issue and substantive claims are intertwined. If resolving plaintiffs' substantive claims requires interpretation of the CBAs, then plaintiffs' substantive claims are minor disputes over which this court lacks jurisdiction. Similarly, if resolving plaintiffs' substantive claims does not require interpretation of the CBAs, then plaintiffs' substantive claims are not minor disputes, and this court has jurisdiction. Accordingly, the court must assess American's Motion to Dismiss using the standard applicable to a motion for summary judgment.

         Therefore, the court must allow American's Motion to Dismiss "only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law." Id. at 163 (quoting Trentacosta v. Frontier Pac. Aircraft Indus., Inc., 813 F.2d 1553, 1558 (9th Cir. 1987)). "If the plaintiff presents sufficient evidence to create a genuine dispute of material (jurisdictional) facts, then the case proceeds to trial, so that the factfinder can determine the facts, and the jurisdictional dispute will be reevaluated at that point." Id.


         Plaintiffs Merna Van, James Holcombe, and Karen Swieton are retired flight attendants. See Compl. ¶8 (Dkt. No. 12). Plaintiff Holcombe began employment as a flight attendant in 1980 with Piedmont, a predecessor of U.S. Airways, which is itself a predecessor of American. See id ¶57. In 2005, Holcombe considered retiring. See id. ¶58. At the time, he was covered by a CBA executed in January 2005 (the "2005 CBA"), which stated:

A flight attendant who has completed twenty-five (25) years of service with the Company as a flight attendant and has attained the age of forty-five (45) and who leaves the Company shall be eligible for on-line passes in accordance with Company policy as if he/she were still in an active status. When a flight attendant under this Paragraph becomes eligible for and receives retirement benefits, he/she shall be eligible for other travel benefits that are effective under the retirement benefit program for flight attendants.

Ackerman Decl., Ex. A, §22.1.2, at 7 of 97 (Dkt. No. 15-2).

         On September 7, 2005, U.S. Airways told Holcombe that "flight attendants who voluntarily resign from [US Airways] with at least 25 years of seniority and who are at least 45 years of age enjoy lifetime travel under the [25/45] language of the contract." Compl. ¶64 (Dkt. No. 12). On November 2, 2005, Holcombe submitted a resignation letter, "in which he expressly referenced the lifetime right to travel with active status boarding priority . . . ." Id. ¶65. Plaintiff Van began employment as a flight attendant in 1983 with USAir, a predecessor of American. See Id. ¶24. In the spring of 2014, while on medical disability leave, Van considered retiring. See io\ ¶¶25, 27. On May 13, 2014, Rick Carpenter, Director of In-Flight Planning for American, sent Van a letter listing "lifetime travel" as a retirement benefit, and stating that "flight attendants who retired with 25/45 status '. . . will receive SA3 (active) boarding priority as opposed to SA4 (inactive) [.] '" Id. ¶¶32-33 (emphasis in Complaint).

         On May 19, 2014, Van received another letter listing "lifetime non-revenue space available travel" as a retirement benefit. Id. ¶35. After following up with Carpenter about her eligibility for active status boarding priority, Carpenter responded, "Don't worry about it as it's my department that makes the 25/4 5 happen." Id. ...

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