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Koehler v. Ill. Central Gulf R.r. Co.

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 20, 1985.

FRED A. KOEHLER, APPELLANT,

v.

ILLINOIS CENTRAL GULF RAILROAD COMPANY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fifth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County, the Hon. Richard P. Goldenhersh, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied February 4, 1986.

Plaintiff, Fred A. Koehler, filed suit in the circuit court of St. Clair County against defendant, the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company, his employer, alleging retaliatory discharge. Defendant moved to dismiss the suit, arguing that resolution of plaintiff's complaint for retaliatory discharge came within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Railroad Adjustment Board pursuant to the Federal Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 151 through 164 (1982)) (RLA). The trial court denied defendant's motion but granted its motion to certify the question for interlocutory appeal pursuant to our Rule 308(a) (87 Ill.2d R. 308(a)). The following issue was submitted for review:

"Whether a railroad employee covered under the provisions of the Railroad [sic] Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. may bring an action in state court against his employer for wrongful discharge without first exhausting his administrative remedies available under the Railroad [sic] Labor Act."

A majority of the appellate court reversed the trial court and entered judgment dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. (123 Ill. App.3d 1038.) In so deciding, the court did not address either the issue certified or those briefed by the parties but relied instead on its decision in Mouser v. Granite City Steel Division (1984), 121 Ill. App.3d 834, which held that the tort of retaliatory discharge was not available to an employee covered by a collective-bargaining agreement.

Plaintiff sought leave to appeal to this court. On leave to appeal, this court entered an order, under its supervisory authority, reversing the judgment of the appellate court and remanding the cause to the circuit court to proceed in conformity with Midgett v. Sackett-Chicago, Inc. (1984), 105 Ill.2d 143. This order was predicated on the belief that our recent decision in Midgett was dispositive. See 101 Ill.2d 566.

Defendant moved for reconsideration of the supervisory order. In its memorandum supporting the motion, defendant argued that the RLA preempts any State court adjudication of employment-based disputes between railroads and their employees, including an action for retaliatory discharge. Upon reconsideration, the following order was entered: "[T]he motion for reconsideration of the supervisory order entered in this cause on October 19, 1984, is allowed. Reconsideration of this case will be confined to the Federal preemption issue [and the collective-bargaining-agreement issue]."

The factual basis of plaintiff's claim began with an injury to his right knee sustained in January 1972. Plaintiff recovered and was certified as fit to return to work with defendant by his physician and defendant's physicians. In June 1972, plaintiff filed suit to recover damages for the knee injury pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act (45 U.S.C. § 51 through 60 (1970)) (FELA), a Federal statute applicable to interstate railroads in their capacity as employers. FELA imposes liability on railroad employers for injuries to employees caused by an employer's negligence. (45 U.S.C. § 51 (1970).) This suit was tried to a verdict, but the record does not indicate which party prevailed on the verdict.

Plaintiff sustained a second work-related injury in December 1978. The injury was to his back. In the course of various medical examinations conducted by defendant's physicians occasioned by this second injury, interest in plaintiff's earlier knee injury was revived.

A physician for defendant reported that he was more concerned about plaintiff's prior knee injury than he was about the recent back injury. In a report to defendant in April 1979, the physician noted that the knee had undergone "degenerative change." Thereafter, in December 1979, the chief medical officer for defendant permanently disqualified plaintiff from his position as a carman welder because of "degenerative changes in the right knee." Plaintiff was permanently disqualified even though his physician had reported that plaintiff had no disability from either the knee or back injuries which would restrict him in the performance of his duties.

One week after his permanent disqualification plaintiff filed a grievance pursuant to the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement in effect between his union and defendant. One month later, in January 1980, plaintiff filed a second suit under FELA in State court seeking recovery for his back injury. The record does not disclose the result of this second FELA action. Six months later, in July 1980, plaintiff filed the instant action.

In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that his permanent disqualification as a carman welder was in retaliation for having sued defendant under FELA. At the time plaintiff filed his action for retaliatory discharge the second suit under FELA and his grievance were pending. Plaintiff's grievance has since been resolved. The grievance was referred to the National Railroad Adjustment Board in February 1981 as provided by the RLA. Resolution was reached in July 1983 when plaintiff was ordered reinstated with retroactive seniority upon securing a favorable medical report from a jointly selected panel of three physicians. Plaintiff was reinstated with full seniority pursuant to this order in September 1983.

This record reveals that, within seven months of his permanent disqualification as a carman welder, plaintiff had initiated actions in three separate forums. Our present concern is with the last action taken, the suit for retaliatory discharge. We address the limited issue presented: Does the RLA preempt an action for retaliatory discharge brought by an employee covered by the Act?

The leading case on the preemptive effect of the RLA is Andrews v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co. (1972), 406 U.S. 320, 32 L.Ed.2d 95, 92 S.Ct. 1562. There the Supreme Court held that an employee who was not permitted to return to work by his employer after recovering from injuries sustained in an automobile accident could not maintain a suit in State court on a State-law contract claim for wrongful discharge. The court found that the RLA governed the dispute. The court also held that the RLA preempted State actions based on ...


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