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Robinson v. Alter Barge Line

March 15, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, District Judge



Plaintiff Dave Robinson filed his Complaint (Doc. 2) against defendant Alter Barge Line, Inc., alleging two counts: Count I for retaliatory discharge under Illinois common law and Count II for a violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILL.COMP.STAT. 174/20. Prior to his termination, Plaintiff worked as an employee for Defendant as a deckhand aboard river towboats. Although Plaintiff initially filed suit in the Circuit Court, Third Judicial Circuit, Madison County, Illinois, Defendant thereafter removed it to federal court (Doc. 1) based upon diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The matter is now before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment with supporting memorandum (Docs. 9 & 10); Plaintiff has responded in opposition (Doc. 11) and Defendant has replied (Doc. 12).

Defendant's Motion raises the issue of whether Plaintiff's claims are preempted by federal maritime law. Specifically, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's claims are preempted by the federal statute, 46 U.S.C. § 2114, enacted by Congress to protect seamen from retaliatory discharge for whistleblowing (Doc. 10, p. 5). Defendant also argues that the broader Illinois common law directly conflicts with the much narrower scope of retaliatory discharge claims allowed under general maritime law. Therefore, Defendant advocates that Illinois law must yield to federal maritime law. Applying admiralty law, Defendant argues Plaintiff's claims fail as a matter of law, thereby warranting summary judgment in its favor. As is discussed within this Order, the Court finds Defendant's preemption arguments prevailing.


The following facts appear to be undisputed by the parties. Plaintiff was employed by Defendant from 2002 to 2004, working as a deckhand aboard Defendant's vessels (river towboats), which operated on the inland waterways of the United States (Doc. 2, ¶¶ 2-4; Doc. 10, p. 1, citing Ex. A - Robinson Deposition, pp. 11-12 & 18-22). During the tenure of his employment with Defendant, Plaintiff claims he observed various crewmen using alcohol and illegal drugs aboard Defendant's towboats, including the towboat to which he was assigned, and due to his personal observations, believed that there was "a small drug culture on [Defendant's] boats" (Doc. 11, Ex. 9 - Robinson Depo., p. 70).*fn1 Plaintiff's concerns prompted him to contact Defendant's Human Resources Manager, Mary Jekel, in late September, 2004, to complain about his co-workers' drug use*fn2 and requested that drug testing be performed on the crew (Doc. 2, ¶ 7; Doc. 3, ¶ 7).*fn3

Less than a month later, on October 26, 2004, Defendant terminated Plaintiff's employment (Doc. 2, ¶ 8; Doc. 3, ¶ 8). Here is where the main factual dispute lies: Plaintiff believes he was terminated in retaliation for "rocking the boat," by reporting his co-workers' drug use to Defendant's Human Resources Manager, Mary Jekel (Doc. 11, Ex. 9 - Robinson Depo., p. 97). In turn, Defendant asserts Plaintiff's termination was not in retaliation for any of Plaintiff's actions (stating Plaintiff's concerns were "groundless"); Plaintiff was terminated, according to Defendant, due to his "unsatisfactory job performance" (Doc. 11, Ex. 8 - Kirschbaum Depo, p. 57).


A. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The movant bears the burden of establishing the absence of factual issues and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Wollin v. Gondert, 192 F.3d 616, 621-22 (7th Cir. 1999). The Court must consider the entire record, drawing reasonable inferences and resolving factual disputes in favor of the non-movant. Schneiker v. Fortis Ins. Co., 200 F.3d 1055, 1057 (7th Cir. 2000); Baron v. City of Highland Park, 195 F.3d 333, 337-38 (7th Cir. 1999).

B. Preemption

Defendant, in support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, asserts that federal maritime law should govern this dispute, as "[t]he scope of maritime law delegated to federal control clearly encompasses the seaman/employer relationship" (Doc. 10, pp. 2-3, citing London Guarantee & Accident Co. v. Industrial Comm'n of California, 279 U.S. 109, 49 S.Ct. 296 (1929)). Next, Defendant makes the argument that Illinois law directly conflicts with federal maritime law regarding retaliatory discharge and thus, Illinois law must yield to federal law.

The preemption doctrine originates from the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution.*fn4 Preemption requires an analysis of congressional intent behind the federal law at issue. Such intent may be either expressly or impliedly given by Congress. Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238, 338, 104 S.Ct. 615, 621 (1984). Express preemption is given when "Congress' command is explicitly stated in the statute's language . . . ." Fidelity Fed. Savings & Loan Assoc. v. De la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 152-53, 102 S.Ct. 3014, 3022 (1982). Otherwise, Congress may implicitly preempt state law when: the scheme of federal regulation may be so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it,' because 'the Act of Congress may touch a field in which the federal interest is so dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject,' or because 'the object sought to be obtained by federal law and the character of obligations imposed by it may reveal the same purpose.'

Id. (citing Jones v. Rath Packing Co., 430 U.S. 519, 525, 97 S.Ct. 1305, 1309 (1977); Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 1152 (1947)).

Lastly, the preemption doctrine will serve to "nullif[y] [state law] to the extent that it actually conflicts with federal law." Id. at 153, 102 S.Ct. at 3022.

This type of conflict occurs if compliance with both federal and state law would amount to a "physical impossibility," or if state law "'stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.'" Id. (citing Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142-143, 83 S.Ct. 1210, 1217 (1963); Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 404 (1941)).

C. Federal Maritime Law

The United States Constitution extends federal judicial power "to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction."Am. Dredging Co. v. Miller, 510 U.S. 443, 446, 114 S.Ct. 981, 984 (1994)(citing U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 1). Thus, the Constitution strips the states of their judicial and legislative power "to contravene the essential purposes of, or to work material injury to,characteristic features of such [general maritime law] or to interfere with its proper harmony and uniformity in its international and interstate relations." Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149, 160, 40 S.Ct. 438 (1920). Instead, the "paramount power to fix and determine the maritime law" of this country rests with Congress. So. Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 215, 37 S.Ct. 524, 528-29 (1917). Therefore, maritime law applies in the absence of some controlling statute. Id.

However, federal jurisdiction over maritime cases "has never been entirely exclusive." Am. Dredging Co., 510 U.S. at 446, 114 S.Ct. at 984. In fact, 28 U.S.C. § 1333(1), the "saving to suitors" clause, allows "in all [civil] cases [of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction] the right of a common law remedy where the common law is competent to give it." Jensen, 244 U.S. at 218, 37 S.Ct. at 529-30. As such, state regulation is applicable to maritime matters when it clearly does not conflict with the federal law. Askew v. Am. Waterways Operators, Inc., 411 U.S. 325, 341, 93 S.Ct. 1590, 1600 (1973). In other words, state law should not substantively alter existing maritime law, otherwise it "interferes with the proper harmony and ...

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