Case Lesson: Federal Preemption of State Law

07 Apr, 2021 Frank Ferreri

                               

Portland, ME (WorkersCompensation.com) – Those who worked their way through the April 5 What Do You Think feature got a sniff of a retaliation saga mixed with a heavy dose of court processes and procedures.

As the case at issue, Nadeau v. Twin Rivers Paper Company LLC, No. Aro-19-500 (Me. 03/30/21), shows, the question of whether a legal topic comes up under state or federal law can make a difference in the outcome and provides a window on how the concept of preemption steers a court’s decision..

Safety Violations, Discipline

In the case, the worker allegedly violated safety protocols, leading the paper mill he worked for to discipline him. Instead of terminating the worker, the mill offered him a last chance agreement, which allowed him to keep his job in exchange for giving up some of the protections of the mill’s collective bargaining agreement with its workers.

Specifically, the LCA dictated that the worker could be terminated without arbitration if he violated another rule. Later, when the mill decided that the worker had violated another safety rule, it turned to the LCA to terminate him.

In response, the worker charged that the mill violated the state’s Whistleblower’s Protection Act and retaliated against him for shining light on allegedly unsafe work conditions. In court, the worker lost, with the trial court determining that his claim was preempted under the federal Labor Management Relations Act. Ultimately, the Maine Supreme Court agreed, setting up a lesson on preemption.

So, What is Preemption?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the Supremacy Clause directs that the “Constitution, and the Laws of the United States … shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Back in 1824, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Gibbons v. Ogden, 22. U.S. 1 (1824) that where state and federal law conflict, federal law carries the day and preempts state law from governing a case.

Over the years, a series of cases have determined that Section 301 of the LMRA – at issue in the Nadeau case – preempts state laws. For example, the Court in Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202 (1985) held that “interpretive uniformity and predictability” require reference to federal law in determining disputes over labor agreements.

However, the Lueck Court also reasoned that cases alleging something other than breach of contract could come up under state law and escape preemption principles.

The Mill Worker’s Case

If preemption applies to breach of contract charges, why did the Nadeau courts apply the principle to a retaliation charge?

Looking to yet another Supreme Court case, Lingle v. Norge Division of Magic Chef Inc., 486 U.S. 399 (1988), the Maine high court explained the worker’s case required interpreting the CBA. This was because the worker’s single count in his retaliation claim charged the mill with violating the CBA by requiring him to choose between the LCA or termination.

The CBA contained a provision allowing for an employee, the union, and the mill to negotiate an LCA for disciplinary reasons. Thus, the worker’s claim placed the court in a spot where it had to interpret the CBA to determine whether the mill violated it. As a result, the worker’s allegation triggered application of LMRA Section 301 and left him unable to proceed under state law.

Instead, the court concluded that the state whistleblower claim was preempted by federal law, meaning that he couldn’t pursue his retaliation charges in state court.


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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Frank encourages everyone to consider helping out the Kind Souls Foundation and Kids' Chance of America.

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