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ADAMS v. UNITED AIRLINES

April 18, 1983

BILLY STERLING ADAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
UNITED AIRLINES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Decker, Senior District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Billy Sterling Adams ("Adams"), has brought this action against United Air Lines, Inc. ("United"), alleging that United prevented him from resuming his regular employment duties after he sustained a back injury at defendant's San Francisco, California facility, and that his subsequent discharge from United's employ was wrongful. In his amended complaint, Adams contends that United manipulated the reports of treating and evaluating physicians, that his discharge was racially motivated, that he was harassed by a private investigator hired by United and that United's actions have caused him severe emotional distress. While failing to state so specifically, Adams apparently claims that the jurisdiction of this court is founded upon diversity of citizenship. Currently pending is defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background.

Plaintiff Adams, presently a citizen of California, was initially employed by United as a ramp serviceman on October 14, 1969. He worked in Chicago at the O'Hare International Airport until April, 1976, at which time he was transferred to San Francisco.

On November 30, 1976, Adams sustained a back injury while at work. He worked periodically between the date of the injury and July, 1977, at which time he was placed on Extended Illness Status ("EIS"). EIS is defined in the collective bargaining agreement ("the agreement") between United and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers ("IAM") as a status where an employee continues to accrue seniority and retains certain benefits, but is not paid. EIS is usually no more than two years in duration, but may be extended if circumstances warrant. If the two year period is not extended, the employee is automatically terminated. Pursuant to this provision, Adams was terminated on December 21, 1979.*fn1

Under the IAM-United collective bargaining agreement, an employee who disagrees with separation from EIS may file a grievance, and may further appeal to the System Board of Adjustment. (See Articles XV(D), XVIII).*fn2 The IAM did in fact grieve Adams' December 21 separation, but subsequently withdrew its grievance after determining that United's discharge did not violate the contract.

Throughout 1977 and 1979, Adams' medical and work status was thoroughly reviewed in connection with both his pending California worker's compensation claim*fn3 and with attempts to return him to active employment. While several medical reports suggest that, during the first six months of 1977, Adams could return to work and perform his regular duties, it is not entirely clear whether during this period he actually performed the heavy manual labor required of ramp servicemen and if so, the number of days on which this occurred. It does appear that Adams drove a tractor during at least some of this time. At no time after late July, 1977 did Adams present any note or letter from his physician releasing him to work without physical restriction.

In his memorandum filed in opposition to United's motion for summary judgment, Adams sets forth a somewhat rambling narration of the medical examination process, from which he concludes that United deliberately manipulated medical reports so as to prevent him from resuming his regular job. He seems to imply that there was some conspiratorial motive guiding United's physicians. Adams charges that the manipulation of the medical reports represents a breach of "a duty of good faith towards the plaintiff," (plaintiff's memorandum, p. 13), and that it led to his wrongful discharge from United's employ.

II. Jurisdiction.

In 1936, Congress extended coverage of the Railway Labor Act ("RLA") to the air transportation industry. 45 U.S.C. § 181-188. One of the primary purposes of the RLA is to minimize interruptions in the nation's transportation services by strikes and labor disputes. International Association of Machinists v. Central Airlines, Inc., 372 U.S. 682, 687, 83 S.Ct. 956, 959, 10 L.Ed.2d 67 (1963). To effectuate that purpose, the Act provides for the creation of system adjustment boards to arbitrate the so-called "minor" disputes between employees and carriers. "Minor" disputes are defined as "controversies over the meaning of an existing collective bargaining agreement in a particular fact situation, generally involving only one employee." Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Chicago River & Indiana Railroad Co., 353 U.S. 30, 33, 77 S.Ct. 635, 636, 1 L.Ed.2d 622 (1957)*fn4 The adjustment boards represent a "mandatory, exclusive and comprehensive system for resolving grievance disputes." Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 373 U.S. 33, 38, 83 S.Ct. 1059, 1062, 10 L.Ed.2d 172 (1963). See also De La Rosa Sanchez v. Eastern Airlines, Inc., 574 F.2d 29, 31-32 (1st Cir. 1978). Ordinarily, courts do not have jurisdiction over the merits of any employment dispute subject to determination by a system board of adjustment. Andrews v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., 406 U.S. 320, 92 S.Ct. 1562, 32 L.Ed.2d 95 (1972); Chicago and Northwestern Transportation Co. v. United Transportation Union, 656 F.2d 274, 277 (7th Cir. 1981).*fn5

United contends that all claims set forth by Adams, except his race discrimination claim, are "minor" disputes and are therefore jurisdictionally barred by the RLA. It argues that Adams' claims are governed by the discharge and arbitration remedies outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. In response, Adams rejects United's characterization of this action as contractual in nature, urging instead that he has avoided the preemption set forth in Andrews by confining his complaint to common law tort actions for wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The court agrees with United, and finds that all of Adams' non-racially based claims are jurisdictionally barred. The basic injury of which Adams complains, his wrongful discharge, is plainly contractual in nature and, accordingly, his complaint involves a "minor" dispute which must be arbitrated pursuant to the RLA's mandatory grievance provisions. See Andrews, 406 U.S. at 324, 92 S.Ct. at 1565; Magnuson v. Burlington Northern, Inc., 576 F.2d 1367, 1369 (9th Cir.), cert. denied, 439 U.S. 930, 99 S.Ct. 318, 58 L.Ed.2d 323 (1978). Any damages which Adams claims to have suffered flowed from his alleged wrongful dismissal from his employment. The purported evil motivation of United would cause no legal injury absent a finding that the discharge was wrongful. Adams' use of the words "wrongfully" and "knowingly" to characterize United's actions cannot alter these basic facts. Thus, plaintiff's attempt "to make an end-run around the jurisdictional scope of [the] RLA by the use of an ingeniously framed complaint alleging a tort[,]" De La Rosa Sanchez v. Eastern Airlines, Inc., 574 F.2d 29, 32 (1st Cir. 1978), must fail.

Adams' attempt to avoid the scope of the RLA by characterizing his action as one involving the tortious infliction of emotional distress is equally unavailing.*fn6 Such a characterization again misses the basic point that all of Adams' alleged injuries flow from his discharge. In Magnuson, plaintiff was discharged from his employment as a train dispatcher for his alleged negligence in causing the collision of two trains. He claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy among railroad personnel, including supervisors, investigators and hearing officers, to conceal the fact that railroad negligence actually caused the accident. Plaintiff argued that the gist of his action was tortious infliction of emotional distress. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, stating:

  "Every employee who believes he has a legitimate
  grievance will doubtless have some emotional anguish
  occasioned by his belief that he has been wronged.
  Artful pleading cannot conceal the reality that the
  gravamen of the complaint is wrongful discharge. If
  the pleading of emotional injury permitted aggrieved
  employees to avoid the impact of the R.L.A., the
  congressional purpose of providing a comprehensive
  federal scheme for the ...

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