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Vanslyck v. Gojet Airlines, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

January 11, 2018

JOSH VANSLYCK, Plaintiff,
v.
GOJET AIRLINES, LLC, TRANS STATES HOLDINGS, INC., and RANDY BRATCHER Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SHEILA FINNEGAN United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Josh VanSlyck brings this two-count action against his former employer, Defendant GoJet Airlines, LLC (“GoJet”), its parent company, Trans States Holdings, Inc. (“TSH”), and its Director of Operations and former Chief Pilot, Randy Bratcher ("Defendants"). Plaintiff, a former GoJet pilot, alleges that Defendants violated the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (“FMLA”), by refusing his request for a modified schedule and refusing to return him to work when requested, and discriminating against him in retaliation for his assertion of rights under the FMLA by withdrawing a promised promotion and then discharging him (Count I). Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1201 et seq. (“ADA”), by refusing to accommodate his alleged disability (anxiety) and discharging him due to his disability and in retaliation for exercising his rights under the ADA (Count II).[1]

         As a GoJet pilot, Plaintiff was a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Airline Division (“IBT”), and the terms of his employment were governed by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) between GoJet and the IBT. (Doc. 19-1, ¶¶ 5-6). Based on this, Defendants now move for summary judgment, asserting that certain of Plaintiff's claims require interpretation and/or application of the CBA, and are therefore subject to mandatory arbitration under the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. and should be dismissed. (Doc. 37, at 1). They also ask that Plaintiff's remaining claims - that do not depend on an interpretation of the CBA - be dismissed and arbitrated (or at least stayed), since they arise out of the same facts and are thus related to the arbitrable issues. (Doc. 41, at 1-2). Plaintiff opposes both dismissal and a stay. (Doc. 42).

         For the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. The Court agrees that certain of Plaintiff's claims (particularly those alleging that Defendants violated the ADA and FMLA by refusing to grant him a modified work schedule and refusing to return him to work) are subject to mandatory arbitration under the RLA. While the Court does not agree that Plaintiff must also arbitrate his remaining claims, this action will be stayed while the arbitration proceeds, and no claims will be dismissed at this time.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         For purposes of deciding the pending motion for summary judgment, the determinative issue is whether resolution of Plaintiff's FMLA and ADA claims requires interpretation and/or application of any provisions of the CBA between Go-Jet and the IBT. Given this, the relevant background includes not only the circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's FMLA leave, attempt to return to work, and eventual discharge, but also the parties' specific claims and defenses and any CBA provisions that are thereby implicated. To avoid redundancy, some of this background (e.g., the language of the CBA provisions) is summarized only later in the Opinion in conjunction with the Court's analysis of the issues.

         I. Plaintiff's FMLA Leave, Attempt to Return to Work, and Discharge

         Plaintiff began working as a GoJet pilot in February 2009 and continued in that position until GoJet terminated his employment in December 2014. (Doc. 5, ¶¶ 10, 17; Doc. 19-1, ¶¶ 4, 18-27). His termination followed 12 weeks of FMLA leave from which Plaintiff never returned to work despite his request to do so. (Doc. 5, ¶¶ 13-17; Doc. 19-1, ¶¶ 20-27). Plaintiff requested the FMLA leave on approximately August 21, 2014. (Doc. 5, ¶ 12; Doc. 30-1, ¶ 2). Unlike prior leave requests for a specified number of days off, this time Plaintiff asked for what he terms “intermittent FMLA leave, ” whereby he would receive “less overnight time” and his out of town flying “trips” (a series of flights away from a pilot's home base) would be limited to no more than four days away from home. (Doc. 30-1, ¶ 2). In addition, rather than make this request for a set number of days or weeks, Plaintiff requested this limitation on his schedule for the full year from August 17, 2014 through August 17, 2015. (Doc. 19-4, ¶¶ 5-7, citing Doc. 16).

         While Plaintiff originally based this request on a need “to care for the serious health conditions of his wife” (Doc. 5, ¶ 12; Doc. 19-4, ¶ 4), the FMLA paperwork that Plaintiff submitted instead cited his own mental health condition. (Doc. 16). This form (entitled “Certification of Health Care Provider for Employee's Serious Health Condition”) included a certification from Plaintiff's Clinical Psychologist stating: (1) Plaintiff had been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, (2) he had “symptoms of anxiety and possibly depression, ” (3) his “anxiety becomes severe after a 4-day period away from family and home, ” (4) he was likely to experience “flare-ups” and “related incapacity” 1-2 times per month lasting a day to 48 hours per episode, and (5) the probable duration of his condition was “at least one year.” (Doc. 16). The certification also said the anxiety condition had commenced on July 16, 2014, which (according to Defendants) coincided with Plaintiff's prior FMLA leave to care for his son (on July 15 and 16, 2014). (Id.; Doc. 37, at 5; Doc. 37-1, ¶ 5).

         After receiving Plaintiff's leave request, GoJet consulted its independent medical expert (Dr. Matthew Miriani) and then decided to ground Plaintiff until further evaluation could be completed. (Doc. 19-1, ¶ 19). On September 4, 2014, GoJet placed Plaintiff on “full-time FMLA leave for the statutory maximum of 12-weeks effective August 31, 2014.” (Id. at ¶ 20; Doc. 19-6; Doc. 30, at 2). As discussed in more detail later, GoJet asked Plaintiff to submit to an examination with Dr. Miriani who in turn requested information from Plaintiff's own medical examiner. (Doc. 19-1, ¶ 21; Doc. 19-3). While Plaintiff was in the process of obtaining that information (which he says he obtained by December 10, 2014), GoJet terminated him on December 2, 2014, stating that he had exhausted all available FMLA leave, failed to provide sufficient documentation allowing his return to work, and failed to request medical leave under the CBA. (Doc. 19-3; Doc. 19-1, ¶ 27).

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “initially granted” his request for “intermittent FMLA leave” and offered him a promotion that would have resulted in a transfer to GoJet's company headquarters which Plaintiff accepted. (Doc. 5, ¶¶ 12-13; Doc. 30, at 2; Doc. 19-6). Defendants then allegedly revoked the promotion and “forced him to take a continuous block of FMLA leave, even though Plaintiff did not request such leave and did not need such leave.” (Doc. 5, ¶ 13). Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants thereafter refused to allow him to return to work as requested, based on the “false assumption” that he was “medically unfit to return to work due to his wife's serious health conditions, ” although he was “medically able to perform his job.” (Id. at ¶¶ 15-17). As a result, Plaintiff alleges, his “forced FMLA leave” expired on or about November 17, 2014. (Id.). A week later, on November 25, 2014, Plaintiff allegedly complained to Defendants that he was being discriminated against for having asserted rights under the FMLA. (Id. at ¶ 16). As noted, one week later GoJet terminated Plaintiff's employment on December 2, 2014.

         II. Plaintiff's Federal Claims

         Plaintiff contends that the above-described actions - revoking his promotion, forcing him to take a block of FMLA leave (as opposed to “intermittent” leave), refusing to allow him to return to work, and discharging him - violated the FMLA. (Id. at ¶ 22). Additionally, in support of his ADA claim, Plaintiff further alleges that throughout these events he was suffering from the disability of anxiety or, alternatively, GoJet and TSH regarded him as suffering from a disability (id. at ¶ 26), but they refused to accommodate his requests for a modified schedule and refused to engage in the interactive process in response to his requests for an accommodation. (Id. at ¶ 27). Plaintiff's ADA claim also alleges that he was nevertheless “able to perform the essential functions of his position with or without an accommodation” (id. at ¶ 28), and his performance had met GoJet's and TSH's “legitimate expectations” (id. at ¶ 31), yet they refused to accommodate his disability and instead discharged him because of it, and in retaliation for his assertion of rights under the ADA. (Id. at ¶ 30).

         DISCUSSION

         It is well settled that the RLA requires mandatory arbitration of so-called “minor disputes, ” which are those requiring “interpretation or application” of a CBA. Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 831-32 (7th Cir. 2014). Such disputes are thus “preempted” (if raised in a state claim) or “precluded” (if raised in a federal claim). Wisc. Cent., Ltd. v. Shannon, 539 F.3d 751, 757-58 and n.2 (7th Cir. 2008).[3] Neither party disputes these principles; instead, they dispute whether Plaintiff's claims do, in fact, require interpretation or application of the CBA. Defendants contend that Plaintiff's FMLA and ADA claims alleging interference with or failure to accommodate his request for “intermittent FMLA leave” (the “interference/failure-to-accommodate” claims) and his FMLA claim alleging refusal to allow him return to work after his continuous FMLA leave expired (the “return-to-work” claim) require interpretation of the CBA and are thus subject to mandatory arbitration. (Doc. 19, at 9-14). Plaintiff contends those claims “do not require reference to the CBA” and are thus not precluded. (Doc. 30, at 5-14). The Court now examines these arguments in relation to the parties' specific claims and defenses.

         I. Plaintiff's Interference and Failure-to-Accommodate Claims

         Defendants contend that Plaintiff's FMLA interference claim requires interpretation of the CBA because Plaintiff's requests for a modified schedule (trips no longer than four days) would have violated various provisions of the CBA, particularly those in Section 8. (Doc. 19, at 4, 9; Doc. 31, at 5; Doc. 37, at 5). Similarly, Defendants contend that Plaintiff's ADA failure-to-accommodate claim also requires interpretation of the CBA because Plaintiff must prove that his requested accommodation was reasonable under the ADA, which in turn requires him to prove that the accommodation did not violate the CBA (since an accommodation that does so is per se unreasonable). (Doc. 37, at 3). Plaintiff disagrees, and also advances other arguments in opposition to mandatory arbitration that the Court considers below.

         A. Applicability of the CBA's Provisions

         Section 8 of the CBA governs pilot scheduling and establishes an electronic bidding system (the “PBS”) through which GoJet pilots bid for their monthly schedules (also called “lines”). (Doc. 19-1, ¶¶ 7-9). Under Section 8.B.5, lines are then awarded based on a pilot's seniority status as defined in Section 11 of the CBA. (Id. at ¶¶ 8-10; Doc. 19-2, at § 8.B.5: “All bids shall be awarded in accordance with seniority of eligible bidders.”). Based on this, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's request for a year's worth of lines with trips limited to 4 days violated Section 8.B.5's requirement to award lines in accordance with seniority, since it required ...


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