This Is A Railway Labor Act Preemption Case.
Alaska Airlines v. Schurke, et al., No. 13-35574 (9th Cir. 1/25/17) is not about the merits of whether a flight attendant gets to use her vacation time to care for her sick child – a Washington state agency had ruled in her favor on the merits. Rather, the case is about who gets to decide: the State of Washington, or the System Adjustment Board established pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement.
The collective bargaining agreement set up an "arbitral mechanism" providing for a grievance procedure, mediation, and arbitration for union members. Existing case law holds that the Railway Labor Act (which, incidentally, applies to airlines too) requires the use of the dispute resolution mechanism set up by collective bargaining agreements rather than resort to a state agency. But existing case law also holds that the Railway Labor Act sometimes does not preempt state dispute resolution. The legal art requires that federal courts discern whether the situation does or does not require federal preemption of state procedures.
Here, in a majority opinion penned by Judge Kleinfeld, the panel held that the district court got it wrong and preemption did apply. So, reversed and remanded.
Judge Kleinfeld's opinion is notable for its candid acknowledgment that this is an exercise in fuzzy line-drawing:
"What we wind up with from all these cases is the need to exercise judgment, not a mechanical rule. Our three part test and words and phrases establish only a 'hazy' and indeterminate line between independent state rights and state rights inextricably intertwined with the collective bargaining agreement. In this case, the sounder view is that the state law right and the collective bargaining agreement are indeed inextricably intertwined."
Judge Christen dissents, arguing that the flight attendant's complaint with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries involves a right that exists, if at all, by virtue of state law, and that the right asserted is not substantially dependent on analysis of the collective bargaining agreement. Judge Christen agrees with the district court that the Washington forum is not preempted by the Railway Labor Act.
Best Line In The Case (quoting late Harvard Law Professor Thomas Reed Powell): ""If you think that you can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking of the thing which it is attached to, then you have a legal mind." Bonus Trivia: A former student of Thomas Reed Powell recalled he was, "vexatious and nasty and snide and, consequently somehow, stimulating." John Braeman, "Thomas Reed Powell On The Roosevelt Court", Constitutional Commentary, vol. 5:143 (1988), p. 144.