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Hughes v. United Air Lines

December 21, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge


Plaintiff Constance Hughes ("Hughes") sued United Air Lines, Inc. ("United") in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, alleging a claim for retaliatory discharge in violation of the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act ("IWCA"), 820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. United removed the litigation to this Court and now moves pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to dismiss the suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Hughes has filed a motion to remand the case to Illinois state court. For the reasons explained below, I deny Hughes's motion to remand and grant United's motion to dismiss.


Prior to the events giving rise to this suit, Hughes was employed by United as a flight attendant. In January 2003, she began a voluntary furlough pursuant to the union contract under which she was employed. In October 2004, she was recalled from the furlough and instructed to return to work. According to her complaint, Hughes was suffering at the time from medical conditions and injuries (the nature of which is generally unspecified in the complaint), and that, as a result, she was placed on an extended medical furlough. She later filed a worker's compensation claim under Illinois' Workers' Compensation Act.

In May 2007, Hughes received a letter from United notifying her that she was expected to return to work by October 2007. Before resuming her former position, she was required to undergo requalification training. During the course of the training --about one week prior to the date on which she was scheduled to return to work -- Hughes claims that she slipped and fell as she was entering United's training facility due to snow and water that had accumulated at the bottom of the building's stairs. As a result, she claims, she "fractured a tooth, scratched her right thumb and knuckle, hit her head and injured her shoulder." Compl. ¶ 23.

The complaint alleges that when Hughes contacted United to inform them that she planned to take additional medical leave time as a result of these injuries, United advised her that she had no more medical leave time available. In January 2008, she received a notice advising her that her employment was being terminated because her medical leave of absence had expired and because she had failed to complete the requirements necessary before returning to work.

In September 2009, Hughes filed the instant complaint in Cook County Circuit Court. Her suit alleges that she was terminated in retaliation for the worker's compensation claim she had filed. United subsequently removed the suit to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Hughes subsequently filed a motion to remand for lack of federal subject-matter jurisdiction. United filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the suit is governed by the Railway Labor Act ("RLA" or "the Act"), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., and must therefore be adjudicated by a special arbitration panel. I consider each of these motions in turn.


A. Motion to Remand

I first consider Hughes's motion to remand the case to Illinois court, for if Hughes is correct in claiming that the suit was improperly removed, I am without jurisdiction to consider United's motion to dismiss. I conclude that the suit was properly removed. Accordingly, I deny Hughes's motion to remand.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1441, a defendant may remove a case to federal court if the case contains a basis for federal subject-matter jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1441(a), 1446. The party seeking removal has the burden of proving the existence of federal jurisdiction. Boyd v. Phoenix Funding Corp., 366 F.3d 524, 529 (7th Cir. 2004). "The presence or absence of federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the 'well-pleaded complaint rule,' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint." Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). As a result, a federal defense to a state law cause of action typically does not provide sufficient grounds for federal jurisdiction. See, e.g., Smart v. Local 702 Intern. Broth. of Elec. Workers, 562 F.3d 798, 803 (7th Cir. 2009). Significantly, this rule applies even where the defendant asserts a federal preemption defense. See, e.g., Pollitt v. Health Care Serv. Corp., 558 F.3d 615, 616 (7th Cir. 2009). However, under the so-called "artful pleading doctrine," courts recognize an exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule in cases where "federal law completely preempts a plaintiff's state-law claim." Rivet v. Regions Bank of Louisiana, 522 U.S. 470, 475-76 (1998) (emphasis added). In such complete preemption cases, "any claim purportedly based on that pre-empted state-law claim is considered, from its inception, a federal claim, and therefore arises under federal law." Id.

Given this framework, it is clear that Hughes's motion to remand must be denied. Hughes is correct in maintaining that no basis for federal jurisdiction is discernable from the face of her complaint. However, the Seventh Circuit has held that the RLA completely preempts claims such as Hughes's. See, e.g., Graf v. Elgin, Joliet & E. Ry. Co., 790 F.2d 1341, 1344-46 (7th Cir. 1986); Leu v. Norfolk & W. Ry. Co., 820 F.2d 825, 830 (7th Cir. 1987) (plaintiffs' state law fraud and conversion claims were preempted by the RLA); see also Monroe v. Missouri Pac. R. Co., 115 F.3d 514, 516 (7th Cir. 1997) (wrongful discharge suit removed from Illinois court and dismissed on basis of RLA preemption); Hammond v. Terminal R.R. Ass'n of St. Louis, 848 F.2d 95, 97 (7th Cir. 1988) ("If [a] complaint states a claim that is removable, such as a claim under the Railway Labor Act, removal is not defeated by the fact that, after the case is removed, the plaintiff files a new complaint, deleting the federal claim or stating a claim that is not removable."). Under the artful pleading doctrine, therefore, the RLA's application to the dispute constitutes a valid basis for removal.

It is true that some Courts of Appeals have reached a different conclusion. See, e.g., Moore-Thomas v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 553 F.3d 1241, 1244 (9th Cir. 2009) ("We agree that the RLA does not provide a basis for finding complete pre-emption in this case and that, as a result, Alaska's removal on the grounds of the RLA's governing this action was improper."); Sullivan v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 424 F.3d 267, 277 (2d Cir. 2005). It is also true that some district courts in this Circuit have questioned Graf's continued vitality, see, e.g., Lynch v. Bialcik, No. 08-C-1127, 2009 WL 2058861, at *2 (E.D. Wis. July 14, 2009) (stating that "Graf is twenty-three years old . . . and since then courts have been increasingly stingy in applying the complete preemption doctrine"), or have ignored Graf and its progeny entirely, see Childs v. Hoffman, No. 94 C 628, 1994 WL 72264, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 7, 1994) ("It is not until defendant's petition for removal that any reference is made to the Railway Labor Act, which is not enough to give this court jurisdiction."). Nevertheless, there can be little question that Graf remains good law in this Circuit.

Since the RLA completely preempts claims such as Hughes's, I conclude that federal jurisdiction exists over the suit and that removal was therefore ...

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