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Saxon v. Southwest Airlines Co.

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

October 8, 2019

LATRICE SAXON, individually and on behalf of others similarly situated, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Latrice Saxon brings a putative collection action brought pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Before the Court is Defendant Southwest Airline's motion to dismiss for improper venue, arguing that Plaintiff's case must be arbitrated. [13]; see also [27]. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion to dismiss is granted and this civil case is terminated.

         I. Background

         This case arises out of a putative collective action brought pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §201 et seq. Before the case can proceed to the merits, however, the Court must first determine the threshold issue of whether the case must be dismissed in favor of arbitration. Both the details of Plaintiff's job responsibilities and the procedural history are provided for context.

         A. Job Duties

         Plaintiff Latrice Saxon is a “non-exempt ramp supervisor” for Defendant Southwest Airlines at Midway International Airport. [1, ¶¶8, 10.][1] The listed duties of Ramp Supervisors include (but are not limited to): assigning subordinate “Ramp Personnel” to various tasks and monitoring their work flow; training “Ramp Agents;” and “determin[ing] that aircraft are properly serviced and provisioned prior to departure.” [27-2 at 2.] The Ramp Supervisor position also requires that supervisors “be able to lift and move items of 70 pounds and/or more on a regular basis and repetitively lift weights of 40 to 50 pounds on raised surfaces.” [27-2 at 3.]

         Ramp Supervisors, such as Plaintiff, “are restricted from performing Ramp Agent duties because of the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between [Defendant] and Transportation Workers Union [] Local 555.” [27-1, ¶5.] Ramp Agents' primary duties include loading and unloading baggage and guiding planes to gates. Id. The restriction on Supervisors' ability to perform Agent tasks is not, however, absolute. Supervisors are tasked with overseeing Ramp Agents and “may continue to perform covered work [e.g., loading baggage] while on duty, with the understanding that the intent is for a supervisor to assist, direct, train, evaluate agent performance and support the operation by managing and directing the workforce.” [27-1 at 3.] Moreover, although Ramp Supervisors may not preempt Agents for shifts, Agents may give their shifts to Ramp Supervisors in certain circumstances. [Id.] Thus, though Ramp Supervisors' ability to perform Agents' tasks (most importantly handling baggage) is “restricted, ” [27-1, ¶ 5], this restriction is not a complete bar.

         In fact, Plaintiff alleges that she regularly “fill[s] in for Ramp Agents at least three out of the five days each week” that she works. When she “step[s] into the shoes of the Ramp Agents, ” Plaintiff “perform[s] the Ramp Agents' duties of loading and unloading the goods and cargo from Southwest planes.”[2] Plaintiff further explained that in addition to passengers' personal luggage, Southwest ships (and she has handled) other freight. [Id, ¶ 6-7.] Defendant concedes that it ships freight but argues that most of the goods shipped in its planes' cargo holds are passenger luggage. [27-1, ¶ 6 (“[T]he ratio of passenger baggage to freight cargo at Midway was 10:1. This means that Midway Ramp Agents handled ten (10) times more baggage than they handled freight in 2018”).] In addition to customer baggage and air freight, Defendant also apparently ships “air mail, ballast, and Company materials.” [27-1 at 13.] The Court infers that when Supervisors “step into the shoes” of Agents, they also load and unload this cargo, see [28-1, ¶¶ 3-5], but neither side has offered any evidence or assertion as to what proportion of cargo is comprised of these items.

         There is one further important difference between Ramp Agents and Ramp Supervisors- the former are included in a CBA; the latter are not. [27-2 at 10, 13.] Thus, according to the terms of Plaintiff's employment, she must individually arbitrate in cases such as this through a process of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). See generally [14-5].

         B. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed a putative collective action lawsuit against Defendant, alleging a violation of the FLSA for failure to pay overtime wages. [1, ¶¶ 28-45.] Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(3) for improper venue or in the alternative to stay proceedings pursuant to 9 U.S.C. § 3. See generally [14]. Defendants alleged that Plaintiff had signed a binding arbitration agreement, valid under Illinois law, that required her to individually arbitrate all wage and hour related claims against Defendant. [Id.] Because this suit was within the scope of that ADR Agreement, they argue, she must submit to arbitration. See [id]; see also generally [14-5 (providing documentation of Plaintiff's submission to ADR Agreement)].

         Plaintiff conceded that she signed the ADR Agreement, and that if the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., applies to her, ADR would be the proper venue for this suit. See [25-1 at 2]. Therefore, the only threshold issue is whether she is exempt from the FAA under § 1. [Id.]. The Court authorized limited discovery into Plaintiff's job duties for the sole purpose of determining whether this Court is the proper venue for the FLSA action. [25-1, 7]; [26].

         II. Legal Standard

         A motion seeking dismissal pursuant to an arbitration agreement is best “conceptualized as an objection to venue, and hence properly raised under 12(b)(3) * * *.” Automobile Mechanics Local 701 Welfare and Pension Funds v. Vanguard Car Rental USA, Inc., 502 F.3d 740, 746 (7th Cir. 2007). The Seventh Circuit has instructed that all facts be construed and all reasonable inferences be drawn in favor of the plaintiff. Faulkenberg v. CB Tax Franchise Systems, LP, 637 F.3d 801, 806 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Jackson v. Payday Financial, LLC, 764 F.3d 765, 773 (7th Cir. 2014). In contrast to the familiar Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “[w]hen ruling on a motion to dismiss for improper venue, the district court is not obligated to limit its consideration to the pleadings [or to] convert the motion to one for summary judgment if the parties submit evidence outside the pleadings.” Faulkenberg, 637 F.3d at 809-10 (7th Cir. 2011). “The party opposing ...

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