HUGHES v. UNITED AIR LINES (February 8, 2011)

United Airlines and its flight attendant union agreed that flight attendants retain seniority for only three years while on medical leave. When Constance Hughes' three-year deadline was near, United asked her to return to work. She received medical clearance and completed her requalification training. Unfortunately, a few days before her first assigned flight, she fell and injured herself so severely that she could not perform her duties. United terminated her employment. Hughes brought suit in Illinois state court, alleging that her discharge was in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. Notwithstanding the complaint’s state law basis, United removed to federal court on federal question grounds. It contended that the Railway Labor Act completely preempts the field. Judge Bucklo (N.D. Ill.) agreed, based on the Seventh Circuit’s Graf decision, denied the motion to remand, and dismissed the complaint. Hughes appeals.

In their opinion, Chief Judge Easterbrook and Judges Cudahy and Posner vacated and remanded with instructions to remand to Illinois state court. The Court first distinguished between the "misleadingly named" doctrine of complete preemption and ordinary preemption. Ordinary preemption is an affirmative defense that must be raised in the court where the litigation was filed. Complete preemption, on the other hand, is not a defense. It is a theory under which federal law so controls a field that a state law claim is not possible. The Court turned to its own and the Supreme Court's jurisprudence on the issue. In Graf, the Court held that a retaliatory discharge case like Hughes' against an employer covered by the Railway Labor Act was completely preempted. It extended that principle to other employers the following year in Lingle. The Supreme Court reversed the Lingle decision, however, holding that a retaliatory discharge claim is preempted only if it requires construction of a collective bargaining agreement. The Supreme Court then extended that principle to a Railway Labor Act employer in Hawaiian Airlines. The Court concluded that Lingle and Hawaiian Airlines controlled and that Graf had to be overruled. Without diversity of citizenship, the case must be remanded to the state court. That is the appropriate forum for United to raise its claim of ordinary preemption on the ground that Hughes' claim requires interpretation and construction of the collective bargaining agreement.