United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
September 19, 2005.
ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS-CWA, AFL-CIO, Plaintiff,
AMERICAN EAGLE AIRLINES, INC., Defendant.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES NORGLE, District Judge
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO ("AFA")
filed its Complaint against American Eagle Airlines, Inc. ("AE")
alleging violations of the Railway Labor Act ("RLA"),
45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. AFA seeks to enforce a binding arbitration award
against AE issued by the American Eagle Flight Attendant System
Board of Adjustment ("System Board"). AFA further seeks an order
directing AE to comply with the terms of the System Board and to
comply with AFA's requests to inspect personnel files. The
Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") provides that all minor
disputes are subject to exclusive and mandatory arbitration. For
the that reason, the court, sua sponte, dismisses the Complaint
for improper venue.
AFA and AE entered into a CBA on March 2, 1998, which continued
through March 2, 2002. Each year thereafter, the CBA renewed
itself annually. Sections Twenty-One and Twenty-Two of the CBA establish procedures for filing grievances. The grievance
process culminates in a final and binding arbitration before the
three-member System Board.
On April 1, 1999, an arbitration hearing was held with the
System Board regarding the termination of flight attendant Sherri
Mayes ("Mayes"). The issue at the arbitration hearing was AE's
refusal to allow Mayes or AFA to copy her personnel file. AFA
claimed that Section 27(C) of the CBA gave Mayes the right to
review her file, otherwise she would be unable to respond to the
charges brought against her. AE alleges that Section 27(C) only
applies to "flight attendants" and as a result of her
termination, Mayes was no longer a flight attendant. The
arbitrator did not find AE's argument persuasive, and held that
AFA should have been given the opportunity to inspect Mayes' file
before the arbitration hearing.
Several days after the decision in the Mayes arbitration, Diana
Kishaba ("Kishaba"), the local union vice president for AFA,
requested the file of another terminated flight attendant, Stacy
Hall ("Hall"). AE denied the request. Hall was eventually
reinstated, therefore AFA did not pursue the denial of her
personnel file. However, Kishaba asked an AE official for the
file of Dineen Hicks ("Hicks"), another terminated flight
attendant. That request was granted. AFA did not make any other
requests for terminated flight attendants personnel records until
In January 2001, Pam Gibson ("Gibson"), a terminated flight
attendant requested to inspect her personnel file pursuant to
Section 27(C) of the CBA. AE refused to give Gibson her file,
stating that Section 27(C) only applied to current employees.
Gibson filed a grievance regarding AE's refusal to allow her to
inspect her personnel file, and on December 10, 2001, the System
Board held a hearing on the grievance. On March 16, 2002, the
System Board issued its decision by Arbitrator Nicolau ("Nicolau
Award"). The Nicolau Award stated that any flight attendant who
was terminated, and who had filed an appeal of the termination has a right to inspect and
copy her or his personnel file under Section 27(C) of the CBA.
AFA alleges that AE violated the Nicolau Award by "cherry
picking" certain documents to withhold from employees' personnel
files, and claiming such documents were not part of the personnel
file. Specifically, AFA claims that after flight attendant Jose
Leon ("Leon") was terminated, AE provided him with a copy of his
personnel file that was missing a passenger letter. AE informed
Leon that he was not entitled to read the letter. Additionally,
after flight attendant Esau Flores ("Flores") was terminated, he
requested and received a copy of his personnel file. AFA alleges
that the file did not contain a report about the incident that
lead to Flores' termination. AFA further alleges that AE's
practice of cherry picking personnel files is a violation of the
B. Procedural History
AFA filed its initial Complaint on April 6, 2005, and its
Amended Complaint on July 8. On August 8, 2005, AE filed its
Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). AFA filed its Response on August 14,
and AE Replied on August 26. Because the issue in this case deals
with venue rather than jurisdiction, the court, sua sponte,
dismisses the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(3), instead of Rule 12(b)(1).
A. Standard of Review
1. Federal Court Jurisdiction
The court "has an independent obligation to satisfy itself that
federal subject matter jurisdiction exists before proceeding to
the merits in any case." Am. Gen. Life & Accident Ins. Co.,
337 F.3d 888, 892 (7th Cir. 2003). Federal courts are "always obliged
to inquire sua sponte whenever a doubt arises as to the
existence of federal jurisdiction." Tylka v. Gerber Prods. Co.,
211 F.3d 445, 447-48 (7th Cir. 2000) (quotation and internal marks omitted). "The first thing a
federal judge should do when a complaint is filed is check to see
that federal jurisdiction is properly alleged." Wisconsin Knife
Works v. National Metal Crafters, 781 F.2d 1280, 1282 (7th Cir.
1986). In Market Street Assocs. Ltd. Partnership v. Frey, the
Seventh Circuit stated: "We remind the bench and bar of this
circuit that it is their nondelegable duty to police the limits
of federal jurisdiction with meticulous care. . . ." Market
Street Assocs. Ltd Partnership, 941 F.2d 588, 590 (7th Cir.
1991); see also Hart v. Terminex Intern., 336 F.3d 541, 544
(7th Cir. 2003) (reiterating the admonition that litigants and
courts must "meticulously review the limits of federal
jurisdiction" so as to avoid the "waste of federal judicial
resources and delay of justice" that occurs where a case is found
to lack subject matter jurisdiction only after proceeding on the
merits); see also U.S. v. Lloyd, 398 F.3d 978 (7th Cir. 2005).
2. Rule 12(b)(3)
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3) provides for the
dismissal of an action for improper venue. FED. R. CIV. P.
12(b)(3). Under this rule, the court is not "obligated to limit
its considerations to the pleadings nor convert the motion to one
for summary judgment." Continental Cas. Co. v. American Nat.
Ins. Co., 417 F.3d 727, 733 (7th Cir. 2005) (case dismissed
because forum selection clause in contract required arbitration).
Furthermore, upon "holding an evidentiary hearing to resolve
material disputed facts, the district court may weigh evidence,
assess credibility, and make finds of fact." Id. (citing
Murphy v. Schneider Nat'l Inc., 362 F.3d 1133, 1140 (9th Cir.
3. Arbitration Provision
As a preliminary matter, the court notes that the overarching
issue in this case is the proper venue, not jurisdiction, of this
action. The court has subject matter jurisdiction, by virtue of
AFA's reliance of the RLA in its Complaint. However, the RLA
provides the venue for exclusive and mandatory arbitration for
disputes between employees and management of a common carrier: The disputes between an employee or group of
employees and a carrier or carriers growing out of
grievances or out of the interpretation or
application of agreements concerning rates of pay,
rules, or working conditions . . . shall be handled
in the usual manner up to and including the chief
operating officer of the carrier designated to handle
such disputes; but, failing to reach an adjustment in
this manner, the disputes may be referred by petition
of the parties or by either party to the appropriate
division of the Adjustment Board with a full
statement of the facts and all supporting data
bearing upon the disputes. 45 U.S.C. § 153(i)
Furthermore, the CBA both parties agreed to requires mandatory
arbitration for grievances filed by employees:
In compliance with Section 204, Title II of the
Railway Labor Act . . . a System Board of Adjustment
is established for the purpose of adjusting disputes
or grievances arising under the terms of this
Agreement . . . The Board will have jurisdiction over
grievances filed pursuant to the terms of this
Agreement. Compl., Ex. A, at 71.
Courts have held that the language in the RLA provides for
mandatory arbitration. See Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris,
512 U.S. 246, 252 (1994); Coker v. Transworld Airlines, Inc.,
165 F.3d 579
, 583 (7th Cir. 1999). The court is mindful that
arbitration forgoes the costly expenses of litigation for a more
economical method to solve legal disputes. "Parties that opt for
arbitration trade the formalities of the judicial process for the
expertise and expedition associated with arbitration, a less
formal process of dispute resolution by an umpire who is neither
a generalist judge nor a juror but instead brings to the
assignment knowledge of the commercial setting in which the
dispute arose." Lefkovitz v. Wagner, 395 F.3d 773, 780 (7th
Cir. 2005) (internal citations omitted). In addition, "parties
are bound to an arbitration provision even if they did not read
the provision." James v. McDonald's Corp., 417 F.3d 672
(7th Cir. 2005). Arbitration is contractual by nature; "a party
can be compelled to arbitrate only those matters that she has
agreed to submit to arbitration." Id. at 677 (citing First
Options of Chicago Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938
, 945 (1995);
Gibson v. Neighborhood Health Clinics, Inc., 121 F.3d 1126,
1130 (7th Cir. 1997)). Federal courts have long approved of arbitration as a legitimate form of dispute
resolution. See Merit Ins. Co. v. Leatherby Ins. Co.,
714 F.2d 673
(7th Cir. 1983).
Pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"), arbitration
may be compelled if the following three elements are shown: "(1)
a written agreement to arbitrate, (2) a dispute within the scope
of the arbitration agreement, and (3) a refusal to arbitrate."
Zurich American Ins. Co. v. Watts Industries, Inc.,
417 F.3d 682, 687 (7th Cir. 2005). "The [Federal Arbitration Act] directs
courts to place arbitration agreements on equal footing with
other contracts, but it `does not require parties to arbitrate
when they have not agreed to do so.'" BCS Ins. Co. v. Wellmark,
Inc., 410 F.3d 349, 351 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting EEOC v. Waffle
House, Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 293 (2002)).
Here, it is undisputed that there is a written agreement to
arbitrate, as demonstrated in the CBA. Second, the dispute here
concerns the procedures and terms found within the CBA; this type
of dispute concerns the "the interpretation or application of
agreements concerning . . . rules" found in the CBA. See
Compl., Ex. A, at 72. Lastly, there is a refusal to arbitrate,
given AFA's initiation of the current lawsuit.
4. The issue in the present case is a "minor issue"
The issue in this case is only a "minor dispute" under the RLA.
See 45 U.S.C. § 153(i). Minor disputes are those that "grow out
of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of
agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working
conditions." Id., see Chicago & North Western Trans. Co. v.
Railway Labor Executives Ass'n, 908 F.2d 144, 148 (7th Cir.
1990). Furthermore, "the RLA grants exclusive jurisdiction to
resolve minor disputes regarding railway labor agreements to
arbitrators on the National Railroad Adjustment Board or
adjustment boards established by an employer and a union."
Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees v. Union Pacific
R.R. Co., 358 F.3d 453, 456 (7th Cir. 2004) (emphasis added).
The "distinguishing feature of a minor dispute is that the
dispute can be conclusively resolved by interpreting the existing CBA"
Brown v. Illinois Central R.R. Co., 254 F.3d 654, 658 (7th Cir.
2001) (citing Monroe v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co.,
115 F.3d 514, 516 (7th Cir. 1997); Hawaiian Airlines, Inc.,
512 U.S. at 252).
Here, the issue in this case centers around what documents must
be included in the personnel file of terminated employees under
Section 27(C) of the CBA. That issue is raised for the first time
in the District Court; it was never raise before the System
Board. Therefore, a decision on the merits of this case will
necessarily revolve around the court's definition of the term
"personnel file" for purposes of the CBA. "A plaintiff's claim is
properly characterized as a minor dispute (and is therefore
subject to mandatory and exclusive arbitration under the RLA)
when the resolution of the plaintiff's claim requires
interpretation of the CBA." Brown, 254 F.3d at 654. Because
AFA's case requires a definition of a term found exclusively in
the CBA, the district court is the improper venue for this
action. See Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees,
358 F.3d at 456.
Both parties agreed to arbitration when they entered the CBA.
They traded "the formalities of the judicial process for the
expertise and expedition associated with arbitration."
Lefkovitz, 395 F.3d at 780. The parties are not allowed to
ignore this signed agreement in favor of litigation in federal
court. While the court has jurisdiction over this case, the
Northern District of Illinois is an inappropriate venue. See
Continental Ins. Co. v. M/A ORSULA, 354 F.3d 603, 608 (7th Cir.
2003) (district court has wide discretion to dismiss a case for
improper venue if the decision is in conformity with established
legal principles and, in terms of the court's application of
those principles to the facts of the case, is within the range of
options from which a reasonable trial judge would select). As a
result, the proper venue for this dispute is before the System
Board, and not in the United States District Court for the
Northern District of Illinois. III. CONCLUSION
For the reasons stated above, the Complaint is dismissed
pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3).
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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