In O’Donnell v. Boggs, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that an employee whose employment was governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) could not bring a state law tortious interference claim because of the existence of the CBA.
Paula O’Donnell began working as a teller for the Boston Globe Employees Credit Union in 1974. O’Donnell was a unionized employee, and a CBA governed her employment. O’Donnell eventually became a bookkeeper. Shortly thereafter, Marion Doucette, the Credit Union’s CEO, hired her own daughter as a bookkeeper. O’Donnell complained to the Credit Union’s board that Doucette’s daughter was not qualified for the position and was being paid more than the CBA permitted. She also complained that the daughter engaged in misconduct, including fraud. O’Donnell alleged that after her complaints, Doucette and board members launched a campaign of retaliation and intimidation, which resulted in O’Donnell’s inability to work due to stress. After O’Donnell failed to provide medical documentation to support her prolonged absence, and after she exhausted her sick leave and vacation time without returning to work, the Credit Union terminated her employment. O’Donnell’s union filed a grievance claiming unjust termination, but later withdrew the grievance, stating that the Credit Union had not violated the CBA.
O’Donnell filed suit in Superior Court against Doucette and the Credit Union’s board members for tortious interference with contractual relations. O’Donnell claimed that the CEO and board members knowingly (1) prevented her from performing her job and caused her to abandon her work; and (2) induced the Credit Union to terminate her employment. After removing the case to federal court, the defendants argued that O’Donnell’s tortious interference claims should be dismissed because resolution of the claims required interpretation of the CBA. If O’Donnell’s claims required interpretation of the CBA, O’Donnell would be restricted to remedies available under the CBA pursuant to the Labor Management Relations Act. The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts agreed with the defendants.
The First Circuit affirmed, finding that O’Donnell’s claims could not be resolved without interpreting the CBA. Specifically, it would be necessary to determine whether Doucette’s actions were proper under the CBA’s management rights clause, which allowed management to take “action which the credit union deems desirable to the conduct of its business.” It would also be necessary to establish whether the board’s actions were proper under the CBA’s terms concerning leaves of absence and permissible discharges. Because interpretation of the CBA was required, the Court concluded that O’Donnell could not bring a tortious interference claim, but rather would need to pursue remedies under the CBA.
This decision shows that employees who are governed by CBAs are limited in the state law claims, such as tortious interference, that they can bring outside of the bounds of the CBA.