What Do You Think: Was Worker’s Retaliation Claim Preempted by Federal Law?

Frank Ferreri

Portland, ME (WorkersCompensation.com) – If a worker reports that he lost his job because he reported safety violations, is it a state or federal issue?

Maine’s top court recently had to consider that question when a worker’s lawsuit under state law triggered application of federal labor law.

A worker at a paper mill complained to his supervisor about poor ventilation in his work area and his exposure to toxic chemicals and industrial dust.

Several months later, the worker allegedly violated safety protocols while unloading pallets of oil barrels from a tractor-trailer. The mill concluded that the worker was subject to termination but offered him the chance to enter into a last chance agreement.

The LCA allowed the worker to avoid termination but required him to forgo some protections of the collective bargaining agreement. In particular, the LCA provided that another failure to adhere to work rules would result in immediate termination without arbitration.

After agreeing to the LCA, the worker complained again about unhealthy conditions at the facility. Later, while operating a forklift at the mill, the worker collided with a core saw and didn’t report the incident. An investigation concluded that the worker violated a work rule, so the mill terminated him.

The worker filed a grievance, but the mill denied it. In turn, the worker sued in court, contending that the mill retaliated against him for his complaints about the work conditions. The trial court held in the mill’s favor, deciding that the Labor Management Relations Act removed from state courts the authority to interpret a CBA.

Under the U.S. Constitution, when state and federal law conflict, federal law preempts the conflicting state law. The LMRA details that lawsuits related to employer-employee relations “may be brought in any district court of the United States,” meaning federal courts.

Did federal law prevent the worker from suing for retaliation under state law?

  1. Yes. Resolving the worker’s claim about the CBA would require an interpretation of the work rule and discipline provisions of the CBA, which would be precluded under the LMRA.
  2. No. Whistleblower claims can be brought in court by workers whose employment is subject to CBAs because the issue is beyond federal law.

If you chose A, you sided with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in Nadeau v. Twin Rivers Paper Company LLC, No. Aro-19-500 (Me. 03/30/21). The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the case had to be decided at the federal level. According to the court, the worker’s retaliation claim would “diminish or impair” the mill’s right to enforce the LCA. Thus, it would require the court to “delve into the meaning of specific CBA provisions” in a way that the LMRA limited.

The court noted that preemption hinges on whether a state claim is “inextricably intertwined” with the terms of a labor contract. In this case, it was because the worker’s claim that the LCA violated the CBA that led to a potential conflict in state and federal law that the state court could not rule on the issue.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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