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Michael S. Oakey v. Us Airways Pilots Disability Income Plan

March 19, 2012

MICHAEL S. OAKEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
US AIRWAYS PILOTS DISABILITY INCOME PLAN, DEFENDANT.*FN1



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Currently before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. See Dkt. No. 95. The Court heard oral argument in support of, and in opposition to, this motion on March 13, 2012. At the conclusion of the argument, the Court orally granted Defendant's motion and advised counsel that it would issue a written decision setting forth the reasons for its determination.

II. BACKGROUND

While Plaintiff was an active employee of US Airways, as a pilot, he became disabled due to suffering leukemia. See Dkt. No. 90, Second Amended Complaint, at ¶ 14. The Pilot Retirement Board of US Airways, a body associated with the 1975 Disability Plan, approved Plaintiff's application for disability benefits effective January 30, 2002. See id. at ¶ 15 & Exhibit "2" attached thereto. On January 9, 2003, US Airways notified Plaintiff that he would be furloughed as of February 4, 2003. See id. at ¶ 17 & Exhibit "4" attached thereto. On March 11, 2003, ING, the third-party claims administrator of the 1975 Disability Plan, sent Plaintiff a letter notifying him of the termination of his disability benefits. See id. at ¶ 18 & Exhibit "5" attached thereto. On August 1, 2003, Plaintiff retired from US Airways. See id. at ¶ 30. At the time he retired, Plaintiff had not attained normal retirement age but had to take a reduced retirement benefit under an early retirement option to ensure some income after his disability benefits were terminated and to preserve his health benefits. See id.

In his second amended complaint, which contains only one cause of action, Plaintiff states that he "brings this action to recover benefits due to him under the terms of a disability plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 . . . and for other equitable relief necessary to remedy the plan's illegal and wrongful actions." See id. at "first unnumbered paragraph." He further states that "the Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to section 502(e)(1) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1)." See id. at ¶ 3.

III. DISCUSSION

To resolve this motion, the Court must address two issues: (1) whether Plaintiff's claim is subject to the Railway Labor Act ("RLA") and (2), if so, whether his claim constitutes a major or minor dispute under the RLA.

The RLA establishes mandatory procedures for resolving disputes within its coverage. In 1936, Congress extended the RLA to air carriers, see 45 U.S.C. § 184, and required those "carriers and their employees, acting through their representatives, to establish system boards of adjustment" to resolve disputes between air carriers and their employees "over the interpretation and application of the parties' collective bargaining agreement[s]." Bonin v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 621 F.2d 635, 637-38 (5th Cir. 1980) (citation and footnote omitted). "These system boards of adjustment are the 'mandatory, exclusive, and comprehensive system for resolving grievance disputes.'" Id. at 638 (quotation omitted).

In 1974, Congress enacted the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA") to address the explosion of employee pension plans. Despite its express provision allowing plaintiffs to bring suits over the coverage and application of pension plans in federal court, "ERISA was not intended to, nor did it, preempt the mandatory arbitration provisions of the Railway Labor Act." Id. (citation omitted). This conclusion finds support in the express statutory provision that ERISA should not be construed "to alter, amend, modify, invalidate, impair, or supersede any law of the United States (except as provided in sections 1031 and 1137(b) of this title) or any rule or regulation issued under any such law." 29 U.S.C. § 1144(d).

"The RLA's mandatory arbitration procedures apply only to issues arising out of the interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement and not to independent statutory claims under ERISA." Everett v. USAir Group, Inc., 927 F. Supp. 478, 482 (D.D.C. 1991) (citations omitted). "Contractual 'doubts about the arbitrability of issues[, however] should be resolved in favor of coverage.'" Id. (quotation omitted). Finally, if the court determines that a dispute is mandatorily arbitrable under the RLA, it lacks jurisdiction to consider it. See id.

In this case, Plaintiff argues that his claim is not subject to the RLA because the Court's resolution of his claim does not require the Court to interpret the 1975 Disability Plan but rather requires the Court simply to determine whether the 1975 Disability Plan or the 1997 Restatement, which Plaintiff characterizes as Defendant's unilateral attempt to modify the 1975 Disability Plan, applies to his claim. Furthermore, Plaintiff concedes that, if the Court finds that the 1997 Restatement applies to his claim, he is not entitled to benefits; however, he asserts that, if the Court determines that the 1975 Disability Plan applies to his claim, he is entitled to benefits.

To support his position, Plaintiff relies, in part, on Sturge v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 658 F.3d 832, 836 (8th Cir. 2011). In Sturge, the plaintiff conceded that a terminated pilot was not entitled to benefits and that his termination for a violation of his employer's drug policy was proper under the collective bargaining agreement. He claimed, however, that his employer had acted with an improper purpose -- to retaliate against him for claiming ERISA-protected benefits or to interfere with his receipt of those benefits.

In assessing the plaintiff's claim, the court in Sturge noted that courts could "'resolve questions of federal or state law involving labor claims,'" but "'only if the issues d[id] not require the court to construe the collective bargaining agreement.'" Id. at 836 (quotation omitted). Furthermore, the Sturge court stated that courts could "resolve issues that require[d] mere reference to a collective bargaining agreement." Id. (citations omitted). Finally, the court explained that "the RLA d[id] not deprive courts of jurisdiction to decide '"purely factual questions" about an employee's conduct or an employer's conduct and motives' that 'd[id] not "requir[e] a court to interpret any term of the collective-bargaining agreement."'" Id. at 837 (quotation omitted). Applying these legal principles to ...


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