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Laurence H. Rabe v. United Airlines

February 28, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 08 C 6012-Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, Judge.



Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and COFFEY and

HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

HAMILTON, Circuit Judge.

This case presents issues concerning the application of United States employment

"After examining the briefs and the record, we have concluded that oral argument is unnecessary. Thus, the appeal is submitted on the briefs and the record. See Fed. R. App. P. 34(a)(2)(C).discrimination laws to an international employment relationship in which the parties agreed to application of United States law. Plaintiff-appellant Laurence Rabe, a French citizen, worked as a flight attendant out of the Hong Kong and Paris bases of United Air Lines. Rabe's employment contract provided that it would be governed exclusively by "applicable United States law" and that only courts and administrative bodies of the United States and Illinois could hear disputes relating to her terms of employment. When the company fired her for alleged misconduct, she sued in the United States District Court claiming that United had discriminated against her on the basis of her national origin, age, and sexual orientation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623, and the Illinois Human Rights Act, 775 ILCS 5/1-102, 5/2-102. The district court dismissed the case, concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Rabe is a foreign national who worked for United abroad.

We reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings. First, whether Rabe worked in the United States is an issue affecting the merits of her claims but not the district court's subject matter jurisdiction. We also conclude that the parties' employment contract had the effect of applying the substantive provisions of United States and Illinois employment discrimination laws to Rabe as a matter of contract law. Finally, Rabe's claims are not precluded or preempted by the Railway Labor Act. We offer no comment on the merits of Rabe's claims except to say that she is entitled to try to prove them on the merits.

I. Plaintiff's Employment with United Air Lines

United hired Rabe in November 1993 to work in France out of the company's Paris hub. She signed an individual employment contract at United's headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. The contract specified that her work would "be performed on board United's aircraft registered in the USA as they operate on routes throughout the Company's worldwide system," and that the aircraft would "constitute the establishment where" she performed her employment. The individual contract also required Rabe to join the Association of Flight Attendants, the American labor union that represents United flight attendants.

The contract provided in articles 5 and 6 that "the terms and conditions" of Rabe's employment would "be governed exclusively by applicable United States law, including the Railway Labor Act and the AFA [collective bargaining] agreement," and that jurisdiction over all employment-related claims would lie exclusively in courts and administrative bodies of the United States and Illinois. The individual contract even said that it would not be valid unless Rabe wrote by hand: "Read and approved, valid for agreement and in particular for acceptance of the choice of US law clause (article 5) and of the jurisdiction clause (article 6)."

United transferred Rabe to its Hong Kong base in 1997. According to her complaint, ninety percent of her flights were to or from United States destinations until May 2002, when she took a voluntary furlough from the company. United recalled Rabe from the furlough in August 2005. Still based in Hong Kong, she worked only flights between Asian airports before things went sour between her and United in 2007. According to Rabe, who is a lesbian, her new supervisor once told her that he believed it is "not right to be gay" and made comments suggesting that he suspected she is a lesbian. In September 2007, the supervisor initiated an investigation of Rabe for allegedly misusing company-issued travel vouchers. Rabe contends that the investigation was a pretext for the supervisor to fire her for invidious reasons. At the end of the investigation in April 2008, United fired Rabe, who was then 40 years old.

II. Proceedings in the District Court

Rabe filed this lawsuit in October 2008, and United moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. United argued that Title VII and the ADEA do not apply to non-citizens working outside the United States and that the Illinois Human Rights Act does not apply to work outside Illinois. Alternatively, United argued that Rabe's claims are precluded (or preempted in the case of the state law claim) by the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. ยงยง 151-188. The district court dismissed Rabe's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, reasoning that United States employment discrimination laws do not apply to her because she did not spend ...

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