United States District Court, D. Columbia
December 12, 2005.
IBT/HERE EMPLOYEE REPRESENTATIVES' COUNCIL, Plaintiff,
GATE GOURMET DIVISION AMERICAS et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICARDO URBINA, District Judge
GRANTING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO HOLD THE CASE IN
This matter comes before the court on the motion of
Employee Representatives' Council (the "Union")
to hold this case in abeyance pending a ruling by a neutral
arbitrator with the System Board of Adjustment ("SBA"). The Union
represents employees of Gate Gourmet, Inc. (the
and alleges that the Company unlawfully
failed to pay employee health benefit contributions between July
and August of 2005. Because a ruling in the pending arbitration
proceeding may moot the remaining claims in this case or obviate the need for further judicial intervention, the court
grants the plaintiff's motion to hold this case in abeyance.
A. Factual Background
In April 2000, the parties executed a collective bargaining
agreement (the "National Master Agreement" or "NMA") that became
effective on June 1, 2000, and amendable on June 1, 2004. Am.
Compl. ¶¶ 5-12. The Company services airlines, and as the airline
industry has struggled in recent years, so has the Company.
Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Temp. Restraining Ord. ("Defs.'
Opp'n to TRO") at 7-9 & Goeke Decl. ("Goeke Decl.") ¶¶ 5-11. In
pursuing cost reduction programs, the Company endeavored to lower
its "single largest expense," labor costs. Goeke Decl. ¶ 13.
Beginning in December 2003, and in anticipation of the impending
amendability of the NMA, the Company entered into negotiations
with the Union to cut costs.*fn4 Defs.' Opp'n to TRO at 10;
see also Am. Compl. ¶ 13 (describing the Company's proposals as
"deep, across-the-board-cuts in wages and benefits").
In May 2005, following unsuccessful negotiations, the Company
provided the Union with the Company's "final offer," a package of
reduced benefits and compensation representing the Company's last effort to negotiate with the Union.*fn5 Id.
¶ 18; Defs.' Opp'n to TRO at 10 & Bralich Decl. ("Bralich Decl.")
¶ 5 & Ex. B. The Company then announced that if the Union did not
approve the proposal, the Company would require all employees
(i.e., Union and non-Union) under the plan to pay the full cost
of medical coverage, with no contributions from the Company. Am.
Compl. ¶ 20; Defs.' Opp'n to TRO at 14; Bralich Decl. ¶ 18. The
Union overwhelmingly rejected the offer, negotiations ended, and
the Company applied for mediation. Am. Compl. ¶ 17; Defs.' Opp'n
to TRO at 10.
B. Procedural Background
The plaintiff filed a complaint in this court and moved for a
temporary restraining order ("TRO") and a preliminary injunction.
See generally, Am. Compl. The plaintiff sought to enjoin the
defendant from ceasing medical coverage contributions. See id.
Following expedited briefing, this court denied the plaintiff's
TRO request. Mem. Op. (July 1, 2005). The court ruled that this
case involves a "minor" dispute as defined by the Railway Labor
Act ("RLA"), 45 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., and that the Union
therefore cannot seek a "major" dispute injunction. Id. at
7-10. As planned, the Company terminated health coverage
contributions on July 1, 2005. Following this court's ruling, the
parties participated in arbitration in September 2005. Defs.'
Mot. to Dismiss at 4. The parties agreed to bifurcate the
arbitration so as to address liability first, and remedies, if
necessary, second. Pl.'s Mot. to Hold Case in Abeyance ("Pl.'s
Mot.") at 2. In addition, through ongoing negotiations, the
Company agreed to reinstate health coverage contributions as of September 1, 2005, at a rate equal to the
pre-July 1, 2005 contribution rate. Id. Although the arbitrator
handling this matter has not yet rendered a decision, the
plaintiff anticipates that the arbitrator will issue a ruling on
the issue of liability by the end of 2005. Id.
The defendants move to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the
court's June 30, 2005 ruling and the Company's reinstatement of
health coverage contributions moot the plaintiff's
claims.*fn6 Id. The Company makes two specific arguments
in support of this position. First, the defendants argue that
because the court ruled that this case involves a minor dispute
as defined under the RLA, the court does not have jurisdiction to
entertain the plaintiff's claims. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss at 5-6
(citing July 1, 2005 Memorandum Opinion at 2, 7-8). The
defendants' interpretation of case law dictates that parties
engaged in minor disputes "must take their grievances to binding
arbitration, and each is free to act under its interpretation of
the collective bargaining agreement." Defs.' Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot.
("Defs.' Opp'n") (quoting Air Line Pilots Ass'n, Int'l v. E.
Airlines, Inc., 869 F.2d 1518, 1520 (D.C. Cir. 1989)). Second,
and as a corollary of the first argument, the defendants argue
that the jurisdiction of the SBA in these minor disputes is
"mandatory, exclusive and comprehensive." Defs.' Opp'n at 6
(quoting Bhd. of Locomotive Eng'rs v. Louisville & Nat'l Rail
Road Co., 373 U.S. 33, 38 (1963)).
The plaintiff makes two arguments in opposition. First, the
plaintiff argues that this case is not moot because the Company's
employees are entitled to compensation for the time period during
which the Company did not make health coverage contributions.
Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss at 3. Second, the plaintiff argues that the
court, not the SBA, has jurisdiction to enforce the commands of
the RLA. Id. at 6.
In addition to filing an opposition to the defendants' motion
to dismiss, the plaintiff filed a motion to hold this case, and a
ruling on the defendants' motion to dismiss, in abeyance pending
a decision by the arbitrator. See generally, Pl.'s Mot. The
plaintiff argues that the arbitrator's decision may obviate, or
at least lessen, the need for further judicial involvement. Pl.'s
Mot. at 4 (stating that "neither the parties nor this Court can
state with assurance that further involvement of this Court will
or will not be needed to make the employees whole"). The court
turns to the plaintiff's motion.
A. Legal Standard for Stay
A trial court has broad discretion to stay all proceedings in
an action pending the resolution of independent proceedings
elsewhere. See Landis v. N. Am. Co., 299 U.S. 248, 254 (1936).
"The power to stay proceedings is incidental to the power
inherent in every court to control the disposition of the causes
on its docket with economy of time and effort for itself, for
counsel, and for litigants." Airline Pilots Ass'n v. Miller,
523 U.S. 866, 879 n. 6 (1998) (quoting Landis,
299 U.S. at 254-55). Indeed, "[a] trial court may, with propriety, find it is
efficient for its own docket and the fairest course for the
parties to enter a stay of an action before it, pending
resolution of independent proceedings which bear upon the case."
Levya v. Certified Grocers of Cal., Ltd., 593 F.2d 857, 863-64
(9th Cir. 1979). B. The Court Grants the Plaintiff's Motion to Hold the Case In
The instant case involves the potential liability incurred by
the defendant for ceasing health benefit contributions for its
employees. See generally, Am. Compl. Because the dispute at
issue here is a minor dispute under the RLA, the parties must
engage in binding arbitration. 45 U.S.C. § 153; Mem. Op. (July 1,
2005) at 5, 7-10 (following Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor
Executives' Ass'n, 491 U.S. 299, 310 (1989)) and holding that
because the Company's position is "arguably justified," the
dispute is minor). Following the court's July 1, 2005 opinion,
the parties participated in a two day arbitration. Pl.'s Mot. at
2. Additionally, the plaintiff represents that the parties agreed
to submit the remaining contract-formation disputes, not covered
in the statutorily required arbitration, to binding arbitration.
In support of its motion for a stay of proceedings, the
plaintiff argues that pending matters in front of the arbitrator
may affect the future scope and necessity of litigation in this
court. See Pl.'s Mot. The court agrees.
The contractual issue remaining in this case is currently
pending in arbitration. Pl.'s Mot. at 2. The issue before the
arbitrator is whether "the elimination of the company's
contribution to the medical plan breached the collective
bargaining agreements and, if so, what remedy is appropriate
under the contract." Pl.'s Mot. at 1. Though the central issue in
this litigation is whether the defendants violated the RLA's
status quo requirement, see Compl. ¶¶ 31-36, that legal
question requires the court to assess whether the defendants
complied with their obligations under the parties' collective
bargaining agreement. Because the defendants' compliance is the
precise issue before arbitrator, the court may appropriately stay
the proceedings. Levya, 593 F.2d at 863-864. The defendants' opposition to the plaintiff's motion for
abeyance restates the defendants position, articulated in its
motion to dismiss, that the court does not have jurisdiction to
entertain this case, and that the case is now moot. As the
defendant states, "the Court does not have jurisdiction over this
minor dispute." Defs.' Opp'n at 8.
The court finds a symmetry in the parties' respective
positions. In essence, the parties agree that the arbitration
will have a measurable affect on the scope of future litigation.
The difference, however, is that the plaintiff believes that the
court should await a decision by the arbitrator before proceeding
further and the defendants argue that the court should terminate
its involvement immediately.
The defendants may be correct that the court no longer has
jurisdiction over this case and that the SBA has exclusive
jurisdiction. Though this court has neither reason nor authority
to entertain a case over which it does not have jurisdiction, the
court's jurisdiction over the issues raised in this case is
disputed by the parties. A resolution of this dispute requires
legal determinations by this court of the viability of the
plaintiff's remaining claim following the court's July 1, 2005
Memorandum Opinion and the scope of the court's jurisdiction
under the RLA. The time may come when the court needs to resolve
these legal issues.
The arbitrator's decision, however, may affect the parties'
understanding of the scope of this case going forward, may
reorient the parties' arguments, may catalyze a settlement of
this matter, may moot the defendants' motion to dismiss, or may
resolve the issues raised in this lawsuit in their entirety. In
short, the arbitrator's ruling may eliminate the need for this
court to entertain the defendants' motion to dismiss. If further
judicial involvement is necessary after the arbitrator's
decision, the court will then address those issues. Among them,
perhaps, will be the defendants' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction and
In the interest of judicial economy, the court grants the
plaintiff's motion to hold this case in abeyance pending the
arbitrator's decision. Airline Pilots Ass'n, 523 U.S. at 879 n.
6; Naegele v. Albers, 355 F. Supp. 2d 129 (D.D.C. 2005)
(stating that "litigating essentially the same issues in two
separate forums is not in the interest of judicial economy or in
the parties' best interests") (quoting Nat'l Shopmen Pension
Fund v. Folger Adam Sec., Inc., 274 B.R. 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2002)).
For the foregoing reasons, the court grants the plaintiff's
motion to hold this case in abeyance. Additionally, the court
orders the parties to confer in good faith following the
arbitrator's ruling to determine whether the remaining issues in
this case can be resolved without judicial intervention, and
orders the parties to inform the court in writing within 20 days
of the arbitrator's decision of the parties' joint or individual
understandings of the scope of this case going forward. An order
consistent with this Memorandum Opinion is separately and
contemporaneously issued this 12th day of December, 2005.
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