In a victory for limiting the avenues available to employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that federal law preempts state law claims for unpaid wages where a CBA is implicated.  As a result, the Fourth Circuit reversed a jury verdict in favor of unionized employees in Barton v. House of Raeford Farm, Inc.

There, production and maintenance workers at a poultry plant alleged that their employer violated the FLSA and South Carolina wage-hour law by, among other things, paying them only for time spent on the production line processing chickens.  This “line time” did not include time spent donning and doffing protective gear, walking to and from the line, or washing gear before and after work.  The workers argued that they should have been paid for this time, and not just for their “line time.”  The workers were members of a union and subject to a CBA, which spelled out their hours of work and rates of pay.  But the CBA did not expressly specify how employees’ compensable time would be calculated.

The district court granted the company’s motion for summary judgment on the employees’ donning and doffing claims under the FLSA based on 29 U.S.C. § 203(o) and on part of the employees’ state law claims.  The district court, however, rejected the company’s argument that the remaining state law claims were preempted and allowed the claims to proceed to trial.  After a jury verdict in favor of the workers, the company appealed.

In reversing the jury verdict, the Fourth Circuit found that section 301 of the Labor Management Relation Act preempted the workers’ state law claims because the question of what constitutes compensable work necessarily implicates an interpretation of the CBA.  Did the CBA’s reference to “hours worked” only include “line time?”  Or did the CBA intend to include all time employees were “on the clock?”  Because resolving this issue implicated the CBA, the Court concluded that the state law claims were preempted and should not have been submitted to the jury.

Moreover, the Court found of no moment the workers’ claims that they received other agreements, including an employee handbook, which indicated that they would be paid for their “clock time.”  Despite these other purported agreements, employees covered by a CBA cannot rely on the existence of separate, individual agreements to avoid section 301 preemption.  Nor can plaintiffs “evade the requirements of [the LMRA] through artful pleading.”

This decision proves that employees cannot evade their bargained for rights under a CBA through creative pleadings or alternate theories under state law.  Ultimately, the benefit of the bargain, including the internal grievance and arbitration procedures, should control the terms and conditions of employment.  At least in the Fourth Circuit, plaintiffs face a high burden to overcome preemption under federal law, and should expect that any attempt to override the terms of their collective bargaining agreement will be rejected.