A federal court in Minnesota has held that the Railway Labor Act (RLA) does not preclude a pilot's claim that he was discharged in violation of ERISA, because he applied for disability benefits and to prevent him from obtaining further benefits. See Sturge v. Northwest Airlines (March 2, 2009). In this case, the pilot took a paid leave of absence because of a back injury and subsequently applied for disability benefits under the Pension Plan for Pilot Employees (the "Plan"). The Plan is an ERISA-governed benefits plan that was adopted as part of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the ALPA (the union that represented the plaintiff during his employment) and Northwest.
Before a determination was made on the plaintiff's request for benefits, he was discharged for possessing and using marijuana. He grieved his discharge, which was upheld by the System Board. Subsequently, Northwest granted the pilot partial disability benefits; however, because he was discharged for cause, these benefits did not include full retirement income, certain flight pass privileges, full health insurance, maintenance of seniority or the right to return to work if his medical condition improved.
The pilot sued in federal court, claiming his discharge violated ERSIA. Northwest sought to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that is precluded by the RLA. The RLA requires airlines to establish a system for arbitrating minor disputes before an adjustment board. Minor disputes grow out of the interpretation or application of CBAs concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions, and are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the adjustment board. The adjustment board's jurisdiction applies to disputes arising out of a pension plan if the plan is maintained by a CBA. If the ERISA claim is independent of an interpretation or application of a CBA, a court retains jurisdiction over the ERISA claim.
To determine whether an ERISA claim is independent of a CBA, the court must determine whether the alleged right derives from a source extrinsic to the CBA. If so, the claim is not precluded unless enforcement of that right is "inextricably intertwined" with the consideration of the CBA. Here, the court held that the pilot did not challenge the Board's conclusion that he was terminated for just cause, but instead claimed that even if his termination was proper under the CBA, it still violated ERISA. Thus, the court held that the source of the right claimed by the pilot was extrinsic to the CBA.
The court further held that determination of whether the pilot was discharged in violation of ERISA was not inextricably intertwined with the CBA. ERISA forbids an employer from discharging a participant in an employee benefits plan for exercising a right under the plan or "for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which such participant may become entitled under the plan." To establish a prima facie case of retaliation or interference with rights under ERISA, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he participated in a protected activity or was likely to receive future benefits, (2) he suffered an adverse employment action, and (3) there is a causal connection between the two events. In addition, a plaintiff must establish that a "motivating factor" in his discharge was his employer's specific intent to interfere with his plan benefits.
Here, the pilot claimed he could establish the employer's specific intent to interfere with his plan benefits by showing that other pilots who were similarly situated were permitted to use a "safe harbor" in Northwest's Pilot Assistance Program (NAPAP) and were not discharged. The court held that determining whether the plaintiff was similar to these other pilots will require reference to the CBA and the Plan, but will not require resolution of disputed CBA and Plan provisions. Instead "the disputed issues will require fact-based inquiries into other chemically dependent pilots, reports of their dependency and Northwest's response. Such inquiries are not inextricably intertwined with consideration of the CBA and Plan, and the RLA does not preclude [the pilot's ERISA] claim."
In a separate proceeding, a different federal court judge held that this pilot had no contractual right to compel arbitration of his post-dismissal claims without ALPA's consent. See Sturge v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. (March 30, 2009). In that case, the court also noted that it has previously ruled that the RLA does not grant individual pilots a statutory right to compel arbitration.