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Renee Rios-O'donnell v. American Airlines

August 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:


Renee Rios-O'Donnell has sued the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) for breach of its duty of fair representation (DFR) and American Airlines, Incorporated (American) for breach of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to which APFA and American are signatories under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. §152.*fn1 American and APFA have moved to dismiss Rios-O'Donnell's claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the Court denies defendants' motions.


Rios-O'Donnell is an Illinois resident and former employee of American, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Texas. APFA is a union that is the exclusive collective bargaining agent for flight attendants employed by American. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4-6. American hired Rios-O'Donnell as a flight attendant on September 26, 1984. Id. ¶ 7. She served as an American employee until American terminated her effective March 29, 2010. Id. With the exception of periods of time during which she worked in management, Rios-O'Donnell was a member of APFA throughout her employment with American. Id.

During Rios-O'Donnell's employment, American and APFA were signatories to a CBA. Id. ¶ 8. All APFA-affiliated flight attendants are intended third-party beneficiaries under the CBA. Id. The CBA provides that a flight attendant may have her union membership dues deducted from her earnings or pay the fees directly to the union. Id.

¶ 9. It also sets forth certain procedures that apply if a APFA-member flight attendant becomes delinquent in the payment of her dues. These procedures provide that a flight attendant may be discharged based on non-payment of dues. Specifically, Article 31 of the CBA states as follows:

The Secretary/Treasurer of APFA shall notify the flight attendant, in writing, certified mail, return receipt requested, copy to the Vice President-Employee Relations of the Company, that s/he is delinquent in the payment of . . . membership dues, as specified herein and, accordingly, is subject to discharge as an employee of the Company. Such letter shall also notify the flight attendant that s/he must remit the required payment within thirty (30) days of the date of the mailing of the notice, or be subject to discharge.

If upon the expiration of the thirty (30) day period, the flight attendant still remains delinquent, the President of APFA shall certify, in writing, to the Vice President-Employee Relations, copy to the flight attendant, that the flight attendant has failed to remit payment within the grace period allowed and is, therefore, to be discharged. The Vice President-Employee Relations shall then take proper steps to discharge such employee from the service of the Company.

A flight attendant discharged by the Company under the provisions of this paragraph shall be deemed to have been discharged for cause within the meaning of the terms and provisions of this Agreement.

Am. Comp. ¶ 9. The CBA states that a discharge under Article 31 can be based only on the flight attendant's failure to pay membership dues and not on the denial or termination of union membership or any other ground. Id.

To contest a discharge under Article 31, a flight attendant must first submit a written request for review within the period of time specified in the agreement. Id. The flight attendant's immediate supervisor then reviews the request and renders a written decision within ten days. Id. "If the decision is not satisfactory to both the flight attendant and APFA, then either may appeal the grievance directly to the System Board of Adjustment [(Systems Board)], established under Article 29 of this Agreement, within ten (10) days from the date of the decision." Id.

APFA policy at the relevant time allowed flight attendants to pay their dues and fees using a "bankcard." Id. ¶ 10. Pursuant to this policy, in 2003 Rios-O'Donnell authorized APFA to charge her monthly dues to her bankcard whenever her paycheck from American was insufficient to cover the dues. Id. ¶ 11. Per Rios-O'Donnell's instructions, APFA charged her monthly dues to her bankcard for at least eighteen months. Id. ¶ 12. In May 2005, unbeknownst to Rios-O'Donnell, APFA stopped accepting payment of her dues by bankcard. Id.

Because Rios-O'Donnell's dues went unpaid, in June 2008 APFA began proceedings to terminate her employment pursuant to Article 31. Id. ¶ 13. APFA sent Rios-O'Donnell an alert letter dated June 13, 2008 advising her that she would be terminated unless she paid her back dues by July 14, 2008. Id. Due to a family emergency, Rios-O'Donnell never read the contents of this letter. Id. Rios-O'Donnell claims that she had no reason to believe that her dues were unpaid because she assumed that the union was charging her bankcard. Id.

According to Rios-O'Donnell, APFA had a longstanding policy and practice of calling flight attendants, or having American do so, prior to the final deadline for payment specified in alert letters sent pursuant to Article 31. Id. ¶ 14. Pursuant to this policy, on July 8, 2008 APFA sent a letter to American asking it to contact all flight attendants (including Rios-O'Donnell) to whom APFA sent alert letters on June 13, 2008 and whose payment was due on July 14, 2008. Id. Additionally, pursuant to American's own internal policies, American's Manager of Employee Relations Vince Heyer advised APFA on July 9, 2008 that he had instructed these flight attendants' supervisors to contact the flight attendants prior to the payment deadline. Id. ¶ 15. Despite these policies and actions, Rios-O'Donnell's supervisor did not contact her until July 22, 2008, eight days after her payment deadline had passed. Id. ¶ 16. Moreover, when the supervisor left a voice mail message for Rios-O'Donnell that day, he told her that she still had fourteen days to pay her back dues. Id.

Immediately after receiving her supervisor's voice mail message, Rios-O'Donnell called APFA to pay her dues. Id. ¶ 17. APFA's treasurer told Rios-O'Donnell that it was too late because the July 14, 2008 deadline had passed and refused to accept her payment. Id. Rios-O'Donnell also sent a letter to APFA on July 25, 2008 containing a cashier's check for the full amount of unpaid dues, but APFA refused to accept the payment. Id. ¶ 18.

On July 28, 2008, Rios-O'Donnell filed a grievance with her supervisor contesting her pending discharge pursuant to Article 31H(1) of the CBA. Id. ¶ 19. On August 1, 2008, her supervisor denied her grievance. Id. Rios-O'Donnell then appealed the denial of her grievance to the System Board pursuant to Article 31H(2). Id. ¶ 20. On March 29, 2010, the System Board issued a written opinion denying Rios-O'Donnell's ...

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