Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sixth Circuit opens the floodgates to federal court

I have a confession to make. I am a procedure nerd. Civil Procedure was my favorite class in law school, and cases that raise interesting procedural issues still get me excited. Putting my personal oddities aside, I still think that Klepsky v. United Parcel Service, Inc. could prove to be one of the most important cases decided this year by the Sixth Circuit, as it greatly expands the class of employment cases that can be removed from state court to federal court.
Thomas Klepsky, a Cleveland-area driver for UPS and a union member, started his lawsuit in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, asserting Ohio statutory and common law whistleblower claims. UPS removed the case to federal court on the grounds that the federal Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") completely preempted Klepsky's state-law claims. Over Klepsky's objection the district court kept jurisdiction and ultimately dismissed his claims on their merits. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit, concerned over the propriety of the federal courts' jurisdiction, requested that the parties be prepared to discuss the issue at oral argument.
By way of some background for those that do not often find themselves in federal court, there are two types of subject matter jurisdiction that permit a plaintiff to originally file an action in federal court, diversity jurisdiction (where none of the plaintiffs are citizens of the same state as any of the defendants, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000), and federal question jurisdiction (where a claim arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States). If a plaintiff files such an action in state court, a defendant has the option to remove it to federal court. It is no secret that employers and their lawyers usually prefer to be in federal court, and removal is often the proper implement to get there.
Typically, the availability of a defense under a federal law (such as preemption) is not enough to support removal to federal court, and a plaintiff can avoid a federal forum by pleading only state law claims and suing at least one non-diverse defendant. However, in limited circumstances, where a federal law completely preempts state law on a relevant subject matter (such as ERISA, or, as in this case, the LMRA where a claim requires the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement), removal is proper despite the lack of a federal claim in the complaint.
Consistent with precedent, the Sixth Circuit found that Klepsky's state law causes of action did not support preemption. However, the Court, in a novel turn, held that one of the remedies pleaded by Klepsky, reinstatement, supported complete preemption and permitted removal:
We find that this single request is enough to support preemption here, as it would require interpretation of the terms of the CBA, and implicates a right created under the CBA.... Even if he does not explicitly rely on terms of the CBA pertaining to reinstatement, his request for reinstatement would, at a minimum, seem to implicate such rights and require interpretation of the CBA. For this reason, we find that preemption exists under the LMRA, and that removal based on federal jurisdiction was proper here.
Thus, because the complaint contained a boilerplate request for reinstatement, which would require an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement (via application of seniority clauses, etc.), removal was proper.
Ignoring whether this case was decided rightly or wrongly, it nevertheless has serious implication for the availability of a federal forum to decide state law claims. Plaintiffs who are union employees will now have a difficult time defeating a removal petition. Clearly, any unionized plaintiff who prays for reinstatement will be subject to having his or her complaint removed from state court. I will be keeping a close eye on cases in this Circuit to see if Klepsky is applied to prayers for front pay (the flip side of reinstatement), prayers to be made whole, or catch-all prayers under which a court could reinstate. My prediction is that this decision will prove to a blessing to employers, who often go to great lengths to get into federal court, a curse to employees, who often try to avoid federal court like the plague, and a potential docket clogging disaster to the district courts, who will most likely see their already heavy caseloads become that much busier.
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