WELA ALERT: NINTH CIRCUIT

 Federal Labor Law Does Not Pre-Empt State Law Gender Based Hostile Work Environment Claim Because It Did Not Require Jury’s Interpretation of the CBA

Plaintiff worked for UPS at Boeing Field in Seattle. She was represented by a union. She frequently complained of discrimination and demeaning treatment based on gender. She filed numerous grievances. In 2009 she filed a discrimination charge with the Washington State Human Rights Commission alleging among other things that UPS had a pattern and practice of favoring male employees by offering them extra work. The term “extra work” is not defined in the CBA and appeared only in an addendum that applied to a different job classification.

Two years later, UPS fired the employee for dishonesty. She filed suit in state court for discrimination, hostile work environment retaliation and wrongful termination. UPS removed the case to federal court. Judge Jones granted partial summary judgment on some of the plaintiff’s claims but allowed her gender-based and retaliation claims to go to trial. He initially rejected UPS’s argument that federal law preempted the gender claims because they were inextricably intertwined with the CBA.

The jury found for UPS on the disparate treatment and retaliation claims. It returned a verdict for the plaintiff for $500,000 on the hostile work environment claim. In ruling on UPS’s Rule 50/59 motion, the district court ruled that the plaintiff’s rebuttal testimony about “extra work” had implicated the CBA and intruded into preempted areas. Give this, the court deemed the damages grossly excessive. The court therefore ordered a new trial on the hostile work environment claim separate from the extra work issue. The jury ruled for UPS at the second trial. The plaintiff appealed.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the grant of a new trial and reinstated the original hostile work environment verdict. Judge Berzon reiterated that Section 301 of the National Labor Relations/Labor Management Relations Act preempts state law claims only if (1) the right at issue is grounded in the CBA rather than state law and (2) whether the state law right is substantially dependent on the terms of the CBA. A state law claim depends on the CBA where the fact-finder must actually interpret the CBA, as opposed to just consult it. Preemption will not arise where there is a grievance/arbitration procedure to make the necessary interpretation of the CBA.

Here the panel ruled that nothing in the nature of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim required interpretation of the CBA. Nothing in the court’s jury instructions required interpretation of the CBA for the jury to find for the plaintiff. Her contention was not that UPS created a hostile work environment by violating any of her contractual rights. Her claim was that UPS’s failure to assign her work as the CBA on its face provided showed its hostility to her based on gender. Moreover, here the parties had resolved any issue of the meaning of the CBA in the course of the plaintiff’s numerous union grievances. No interpretation of the CBA was required on the part of the jury.

The court remanded the case for Judge Jones to reconsider whether the $500,000 verdict was grossly excessive given there was no preemption of any of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim.

See decision here: Matson v. UPS, 840 F.3d 1126 (9th Cir. 11/4/16) (Berzon, Graber, Murgia).