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Negron v. Oxford Airport Technical Services

January 6, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norma L. Shapiro, J.


Doris Negron, individually and as administrator of her husband's estate, filed this wrongful death and survival action in state court for claims arising from the death of her husband, Wilfred Negron, who worked for Northwest Airlines at the Philadelphia International Airport. Defendant International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers ("IAMAW") removed the action to federal court and moved to dismiss with prejudice. Plaintiffs did not file a motion to remand the action to state court, but requested remand in opposition to IAMAW's motion to dismiss. IAMAW's motion to dismiss will be granted and the remaining action will be remanded to state court.


Plaintiffs allege that on May 25, 2006, Mr. Negron fell from an "air step" unit manufactured by Clyde Machines while performing grooming activities on an Airbus 320; he died soon thereafter. Plaintiffs claim the accident was caused in part by a dangerous defect in the air step unit. IAMAW and Northwest are signatories to a collective-bargaining agreement covering Mr. Negron's employment ("Northwest CBA"). Mr. Negron was a member of IAMAW; plaintiffs claim it "supervised the actions of its members and/or was responsible for the safety, health and welfare of its members." Compl. ¶ 28 (Paper no. 1, Ex. A). Plaintiffs also claim IAMAW owed Mr. Negron a common law duty under Pennsylvania law to ensure his safety.

Plaintiffs filed*fn1 a civil action in state court for wrongful death, survival, negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, breach of warranty and strict liability.*fn2 IAMAW, invoking original jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331,*fn3 timely removed the action to this court under 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b). In its notice of removal, IAMAW argued that "the relationship among collective bargaining parties and member employees, including the Decedent, and the duties, if any, owed by the IAMAW to the employees, including the Decedent, are governed by the Railway Labor Act (the "RLA"), 45 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., and the collective bargaining agreement." Def. Notice of Removal, p. 2 (Paper no. 1).

IAMAW filed a motion to dismiss on five grounds: (1) the state law claims are preempted by federal labor law; (2) federal law only imposes a duty on unions to represent its members fairly and plaintiffs failed to allege a breach of this duty; (3) plaintiffs' claims are barred by a six month statute of limitations; (4) IAMAW owed no duty to Mrs. Negron individually; and (5) plaintiffs failed to plead facts supporting a claim for punitive damages. Plaintiffs argue that the complaint "is based on [IAMAW's] onsite presence and conduct, action and/or inaction that was reckless, unlawful and indicative of gross negligence and/or willful and/or wanton conduct." Pl. Brief in Opposition at ¶ 12 (Paper no. 16). Plaintiffs, arguing that their state law claims are not pre-empted by the RLA, assert common law and statutory "rights and obligations that exist independent of any collective-bargaining agreement." Id.


IAMAW removed this action on the ground that state law claims concerning a union's duty under a collective-bargaining agreement are pre-empted by federal labor law. Plaintiffs contend their state law claims do not arise under federal law and are actionable in state court.

To withstand a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), plaintiffs must present factual allegations providing entitlement to relief. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). If plaintiffs' assertions fail to state a legally cognizable claim, defendant's motion to dismiss will be granted.

A. Pre-Emption and Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The Railway Labor Act ("RLA"), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., governs labor relations in the airline industry and establishes "a mandatory arbitral mechanism to handle disputes growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions." Hawaiian Airlines v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 248 (1994). See 45 U.S.C. § 181 (extending application of the RLA to carriers by air). The mandatory arbitral mechanism applies to "minor disputes," a term of art encompassing "controversies over the meaning of an existing collective-bargaining agreement in a particular fact situation." Id. at 253. A state law claim is pre-empted by the RLA if it "depends on the interpretation of the [collective-bargaining agreement]." Id. at 263. To avoid pre-emption, a plaintiff must assert "substantive protections provided by state law, independent of whatever labor agreement might govern." Id. at 257, 263. "In other words, even if dispute resolution pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement, on the one hand, and state law, on the other, would require addressing precisely the same set of facts, as long as the state-law claim can be resolved without interpreting the agreement itself, the claim is 'independent' of the agreement for . . . pre-emption purposes." Id. at 262.

In Hawaiian Airlines, for example, the plaintiff was fired after reporting safety violations to the Federal Aviation Authority. The plaintiff, asserting "a state-law obligation not to fire respondent in violation of public policy or in retaliation for whistle-blowing," sued the airline under the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act. Id. at 258. The Supreme Court held that the claims were not pre-empted by the RLA because they could be adjudicated without reference to the collective-bargaining agreement. Id. at 262-63. "The state tort claims . . . require[d] only the purely factual inquiry into any retaliatory motive of the employer." Id. at 266.

Here, plaintiffs characterize their claims as asserting state law protections requiring a union to ensure a safe workplace for its members. Plaintiffs argue that their claims rely on "rights and obligations that exist independent of any collective-bargaining agreement." Pl. Brief in Opposition at ¶ 12 (Paper no. 16). However, this characterization is inconsistent with the allegations in the complaint, which specifically invoke the protections of the collective- bargaining agreement. Plaintiffs allege negligent conduct by IAMAW consisting of:

(oo) Failing to file appropriate grievances with NWA to protect decedent from unsafe work practices at the Philadelphia International Airport; . . . (eee) Failing to enforce any provision of any collective-bargaining agreement and/or membership promise that would promote and/or ensure member safety.

Compl. ¶ 71 (Paper no. 1). These allegations assert a breach of the duty of fair representation that IAMAW owes its members. Steele v. Louisville & N. R. Co., 323 U.S. 192, 202 (1944). "The rights and duties of unions in carrying out their representational functions is an area where the policy of the law is so dominated by the sweep of federal statutes that legal relations which they affect must be deemed governed by federal law having its source in those statutes, rather than by local law." Bensel v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 387 F.3d 298, 322 (3d Cir. 2004). Plaintiffs' state law claims asserting breach of the duty of fair representation are pre-empted and governed by the RLA.

Plaintiffs' alternative state law theory of relief, based on a union's alleged common law duty to ensure a safe workplace for its members, cannot be resolved without reference to the collective-bargaining agreement so it is pre-empted by federal law. "Under the common law, . . . it is the employer, not a labor union, that owes employees a duty to exercise reasonable care in providing a safe workplace." International Bhd. of Elec. Workers v. Hechler, 481 U.S. 851, 859 (1987) (emphasis in original). A labor union may assume contractual obligations under a collective-bargaining agreement, such as a duty of care to ...

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