Mastodon Ohio Employer Law Blog: jurisprudence : Ohio Employment and Labor Law, by Jon Hyman
Showing posts with label jurisprudence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label jurisprudence. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Be conscious of inequities when gauging litigation


Four years ago, in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was inappropriate to certify a nationwide class of 1.5 million female Wal-Mart employees allegedly denied pay and promotions because of a corporate-wide "policy" of sex discrimination. SCOTUS’s Dukes decision ended a decade of litigation over the propriety of the attempted nationwide class action.

More than a year after the Dukes decision, Cheryl Phipps, Bobbi Millner, and Shawn Gibbon launched a similar lawsuit in federal court in Tennessee, but instead seeking a region-wide sex-discrimination class. Wal-Mart alleged that the claims, more than a decade old, were time barred. Yesterday, in Phipps v. Wal-Mart Stores [pdf], the 6th Circuit formally disagreed.

For civil procedure geeks (like myself), the case is a fascinating read on the theory of statutes of limitations and equitable tolling. That analysis, however, is well beyond the scope of what I hope to accomplish with my little slice of the Internet.

Here’s the practical take-away. Employers favor certainty, knowing that if an employee fails to file a lawsuit 90 days after the EEOC issues its right-to-sue letter, for example, the employee waived the right to assert federal discrimination claims. Courts, however, favor equities, and try to avoid inequitable results. Sometimes, these ideals clash. When this happens, employers cannot assume victory, and should brace themselves accordingly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Did the 6th Circuit just approve a claim for benign discrimination?


In Litton v. Talawanda Sch. Dist. (6th Cir. 6/26/12) [pdf], a demoted and transferred custodian sued his employer for age and race discrimination. At trial, the jury returned the following special verdict:

The jury concluded that Litton did not prove that he had suffered an adverse action, yet proved that he was treated differently because of his race. Under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework, the lack of an adverse action should dispose of the case. If one cannot show a prima facie case (which includes the suffering of an adverse action), the ultimate issue of discrimination should never be reached.

The 6th Circuit, however, disagreed. It disregarded the jury’s finding on the existence of an adverse action as irrelevant to its subsequent finding on the ultimate issue of whether discrimination occurred:

The jury’s assessment of Litton’s prima facie case did not control its finding on the ultimate question of discrimination…. he district court was not only permitted to disregard the jury’s answer to the adverse employment action question, it was required to do so, and instead to evaluate the strength of the evidence as a whole.

As I read the opinion in Litton, I mapped out in my head a grand critique. Then I read Judge Batchelder’s dissent, and decided I couldn’t say it any better:

The core problem with the majority’s holding is that it treats the question of whether Litton suffered adverse discrimination as distinct from “the ultimate question of discrimination vel non.” The two are one…. Title VII does not ban mere discrimination, but only adverse discrimination…. It is, to me, beyond obvious that Title VII applies only where there has been discrimination against an individual. That requirement is not merely some vestigial prima facie element that fades into the background as the case progresses—it is at the heart of the claim itself….

In sum, “the ultimate burden of persuading the trier of fact that the defendant intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff remains at all times with the plaintiff.” … The majority should not relieve Litton of his burden, and it certainly should not grant him victory in the face of a jury verdict finding that he never proved that he suffered adverse discrimination at all. The whole purpose of Title VII … is preventing harmful discrimination, not the lamentable-but-benign discrimination that the jury found Litton experienced.

Did the 6th Circuit unwittingly create a cause of action for benign discrimination? Or, is this case an anomaly that future courts will distinguish and disregard? Common sense mandates the latter. Right?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What does Groundhog Day teach us about federal courts?


In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray repeats February 2—over, and over, and over again—until he gets it right. In Sollitt v. Keycorp (6th Cir. 2/1/12) [pdf], Kevin Sollitt and his former employer are doomed to repeat his wrong discharge lawsuit, because the bank took an aggressive position in removing his case to federal court.

(For the uninitiated who want to read all about the removal of lawsuits from state court to federal court, click here, read, and then come back.)

In sum, the appellate court concluded that the Edge Act—which permits claims involving international or foreign banking to be filed in federal court—did not provide a basis for removal of Sollitt’s state law wrongful discharge claim. The Court was reluctant to subscribe “an inherently limitless view” to the Edge Act’s grant of federal jurisdiction:

Suppose, for example, that Sollitt had tripped and fallen over a stack of carelessly placed printouts of foreign-currency transactions. This meager association—ridiculous as it is—between the potential negligence claim and the foreign banking transaction that generated the printouts, would appear to suffice for Edge Act jurisdiction under so limitless a view. That cannot be correct….

Sollitt accused a co-worker of misconduct, KeyCorp fired Sollitt, and Sollitt sued in federal court for wrongful termination. KeyCorp’s firing of Sollitt was not an aspect of “banking” and, therefore, Sollitt’s claim of wrongful termination did not “arise out of” a banking transaction, even though the entire episode arguably can be traced back to the PHC foreign currency transaction.

As a result, the case will be remanded back to state court, where it was originally filed. In the interim, the parties litigated the case, and the employer won summary judgment. Now, the parties are going back to state court, (maybe) to do it all over again. The plaintiff will certainly want the chance to re-present the factual issues raised in opposition to the summary judgment motion, or present new issues he may have discovered.

The lesson? Be very careful when you remove cases. A federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction is always in play, at each stage of litigation. An appellate court can bounce a case back to state court even if the district court never even entertained the jurisdictional issue. When that happens, you will have a Bill Murray moment.

Happy Groundhog Day.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

New rules for removing cases to federal court will impact employers


If you are an employer, or an attorney representing employers (and if you’re reading this blog I’d bet dollars to donuts you fall into one of these categories), the Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act of 2011 [pdf] will significantly impact you. Congress passed this bill last week, and PrawfsBlog notes that President Obama expects to sign it into law.

Without getting overly technical (for those who are not familiar with how the removal of cases from state court to federal court works), with some limited exceptions, a defendant has the right to take a case originally filed in state court into federal court if the plaintiff could have filed the case in federal court in the first place. There are two types of cases a plaintiff is jurisdictionally permitted file in federal court: those based on the diversity of the parties (where no plaintiff is a citizen of the same state as any defendant, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000), and those based on a federal question (where a claim arises under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States).

The JVCA will make some significant changes in how we remove cases to federal court:

For all removed cases:

  • In cases with multiple defendants, it will now be a statutory requirement that all defendants consent to the removal (codifying a long-standing judicial requirement).
  • Each defendant will have its own 30-day period after receipt by or service on that defendant of the initial pleading or summons (clearing up a conflict among the circuits, some of which had denied a later-served defendant the benefit of a full 30-day period to file a notice of removal).
  • If a later-served defendant is the first to file a notice of removal, earlier-served defendants may consent to the removal even though they had not previously initiated or consented to the removal (also clearing up a circuit conflict).

For removed cases based on a federal question:

  • In cases that combine a federal question with non-removable state law claims (workers’ comp claims, for example), the JVCA will require the federal district court to sever the non-removable state law claims and remand them back to state court. This provision presents a risk of bifurcated lawsuits (and duplicative litigation?) in certain instances.

For removed cases based on diversity of citizenship:

  • The JVCA adds a bad faith exception to the prohibition against the removal of cases after one year after the commencement of the action. A court can permit this late removal if it finds that the plaintiff acted in bad faith to prevent a timely removal (such as by deliberating hiding the real amount in controversy).
  • The JVCA cures the conflict among the circuits in the calculation of the amount in controversy. It permits a defendant to state in the notice of removal the amount in controversy when the complaint is silent, and permits late removal if one learns the amount in controversy via discovery responses. This provision is significant in states like Ohio, which permit boilerplate $25,000 prayers for relief in common pleas court complaints. This provision removes that risk that a defendant who waited to remove a case following discovery on the amount in controversy risked remand based on a late-filed removal. 

It is no secret that employers and their lawyers usually prefer to be in federal court, and removal is often the way we get there. Because the JVCA will affect how we get certain cases into federal court, it is a significant development that warrants our attention. It will go into effect 30 days after President Obama signs it into law.

[Hat tip: @overlawyered]

Monday, February 7, 2011

The most significant penny in the history of American jurisprudence? 6th Circuit remands case over one cent


What caused the court in Freeland v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (6th Cir. 2/4/11) [pdf] to write so eloquently about the fate of the penny?  

The penny is easily the most neglected piece of U.S. currency. Pennies tend to sit at the bottom of change jars or vanish into the cracks between couch cushions. Vending machines and parking meters will not accept them. Many people refuse to bend down to pick up a penny off the ground, deeming the reward not worth the effort. And a member of Congress even introduced legislation that would effectively eliminate the penny by requiring merchants to round their prices to the nearest nickel. See Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation (COIN) Act, H.R. 5818, 109th Cong. § 3(a) (2006). In this case, however, the penny gets a rare moment in the spotlight. The amount in controversy in this declaratory judgment action is exactly one penny short of the jurisdictional minimum of the federal courts.

A civil case arrives in federal court in one of two ways: the plaintiff files it, or the defendant removes it from state court. Either way, the federal court must have subject matter jurisdiction over the case—that is, the case either must arise under a federal statute, or all plaintiffs must hail from different states than all defendants and the amount at stake must exceed $75,000.

Make no mistake, these courts take their 3446286184_bdf555237f_mlimited jurisdiction seriously. Need proof? Freeland v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co. dismissed a case over one cent. The case involved a $100,000 insurance policy, over which the parties did not dispute the first $25,000 in coverage. Therefore, the court concluded that the amount in controversy was $75,000, not $100,000, which fell one penny short of the key necessary to open the gates to the federal courthouse. 

Imagine litigating a case for more than two years, only to learn that the entire case was litigated in the wrong court. The court was sympathetic (to a point), but remanded the case nevertheless:

The Court recognizes that vacating the district court’s judgment and remanding this case is painfully inefficient. This is especially so in light of the substantial resources that been spent litigating the merits of this case and the infinitesimal amount by which the amount in controversy falls short. But the Court simply has no choice in the matter.… The district court lacked the authority to grant Liberty Mutual’s motion for summary judgment. The only proper course is to remand this case back to state court for lack of federal jurisdiction.

In litigation, the little things really do matter.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taking more than one bite at the apple in discrimination cases


7. snow white and poison apple eat

One of the anomalies of Ohio’s employment discrimination statute is that it provides for individual liability for managers’ and supervisors’ own acts of discrimination. This peculiarity presents at least three issues for businesses to deal with:

  1. By adding an in-state manager or supervisor as a defendant, Ohio employees can make it difficult for out-of-state businesses to remove discrimination cases to federal court based on diversity of citizenship.

  2. A conflict of interest may prevent one attorney from defending both the business and the individual defendant, thus signaling to the plaintiff that there may be liability problems.

  3. A federal court may pass on hearing the state law claims against the individual defendant, thereby giving the plaintiff two bites at the apple.

Price v. Carter Lumber Co. (Ohio Ct. App. 9/15/10) [pdf] is a poignant illustration of this third issue.

Gerald Price claimed that his former supervisor, Jim Collins, told him that Carter Lumber was not willing to work around his dialysis schedule and therefore would not rehired him. Price sued Carter Lumber and Collins in federal district court for disability discrimination. The federal court dismissed without prejudice (meaning Price was free to re-file) the state-law claims against Collins. Price then sued Carter Lumber and Collins in state court. After Carter Lumber won a jury verdict in federal court, both it and Collins moved the state court for dismissal.

The law uses a lot of Latin phrases, one of which I am about to introduce—res judicata. Ohio law uses res judicata as an umbrella term to cover both claim preclusion and issue preclusion. Claim preclusion bars subsequent actions between the same parties (or those related to them) on all claims arising out of the transaction that was the subject of a previous action. Issue preclusion bars the same parties (or those related to them) from re-litigating an issue in a subsequent action if the fact or point was directly at issue in a previous action and was ruled upon by a court. In other words, a plaintiff is only supposed to get one bite at the proverbial apple.

The court of appeals concluded that even though a federal jury concluded that Carter Lumber did not discriminate against Price, a state court jury might have the opportunity to determine the same issue as to Collins, one of its supervisors. Whether Price was able to litigate his discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims against Collins would hinge on the trial court’s review of the specific issues decided by federal jury.

It is likely that Collins will ultimately succeed and have the state court claims dismissed. Yet, that fact that he has to spend time and money litigating the issue—when a jury has already concluded that the employer did not discriminate—is reason enough for Ohio’s legislature to amend our state discrimination statute to bring it on par with its federal counterpart by eliminating individual liability. 


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do you know? Admissibility of settlement offers


Sometimes, employers are blindsided by a lawsuit. The first you might learn that an ex-employee is suing you is when you are served the complaint and summons. Other times, however, the filing of a lawsuit is preceded by a back-and-forth between attorneys hoping to resolve the dispute outside of court. To what extent can you freely communicate with an ex-employee’s attorney without fear that your words and statements will come back to haunt you in a trial if the negotiations break down? Eid v. Saint-Gobain Abrasives (6th Cir. 5/12/10) [pdf] provides some guidance.

After his termination from Saint-Gobain, Kenneth Eid retained counsel for the purpose of asserting an employment discrimination claim. Prior to filing a claim, Eid’s attorney sent a letter to Saint-Gobain announcing Eid’s intention to pursue a claim but inviting a negotiated resolution. Saint-Gobain’s associate general counsel responded in writing with a discussion of Saint-Gobain’s internal investigation into Eid’s allegations and witnesses interviews. The responses concluded that the “termination was handled in our judgment in an appropriate fashion,” and “[t]here is no basis for the organization to consider a settlement with your client.”

Prior to trial, the court excluded the general counsel’s letter under Evidence Rule 408. Following a defense verdict, Eid appealed that decision.

Evidence Rule 408 prohibits a party from introducing into evidence:

  • offers to settle; and
  • conduct or statements made in settlement negotiations regarding the claim.

The 6th Circuit found that the trial court properly excluded the letter, despite the refusal to engage in any further settlement negotiations:

A party will often adopt a hardline position at the beginning of negotiations in order to extract greater concessions from an opponent. It would ignore the realities of negotiation to hold that such a position necessarily means that the parties are not engaged in compromise negotiations. Such a rule would also run contrary to the purposes of Rule 408, as it would invite undue caution in settlement negotiations, and would facilitate the admission of communications that contain puffing, posturing, and various irrelevancies.

The 6th Circuit also found that the discussion of the internal investigation was within the protections of Rule 408.

In other words, you can respond to an employee’s pre-suit settlement overtures with a reasonable degree of confidence that a jury will not some day be reading your lawyers comments about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Access to federal court just got a little bit easier for corporations


Employers like to be in federal court. According to a recent study by the American Constitution Society, plaintiffs only win 15% of the time on employment discrimination suits in federal court. Thus, it is often critical for employers to have their cases heard in federal court.

Federal courts, however, are courts of limited jurisdiction. There are two main avenues to get a case into federal court—lawsuits premised on a federal statute (known as federal question jurisdiction), and lawsuits with more than $75,000 in controversy where no defendants hail from the same state as any plaintiff (known as diversity jurisdiction). Whenever a party is sued in state court, that party may remove the suit to federal court, provided the federal court would otherwise have jurisdiction.

For purposes of diversity jurisdiction, a corporation is a citizen of its state of incorporation and the state where it has its principal place of business. When a large corporation does business in a number of states, however, determining its “principal place of business” often presents courts with a challenge. On Tuesday, in Hertz Corp. v. Friend, the United States Supreme Court decided what “principal place of business” means:

We conclude that “principal place of business” is best read as referring to the place where a corporation’s officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation’s activities. It is the place that Courts of Appeals have called the corporation’s “nerve center.” And in practice it should normally be the place where the corporation maintains its head-quarters—provided that the headquarters is the actual center of direction, control, and coordination, i.e., the “nerve center,” and not simply an office where the corporation holds its board meetings (for example, attended by directors and officers who have traveled there for the occasion).

Why is this case important to employers?

  1. As noted above, employers like to be in federal court. This case expands employer’s access to federal court by limiting the number of states in which it can be found to be a citizen for diversity purposes. By limiting a corporation’s principal place of business to the corporate nerve center, corporations will be able to remove a greater number of lawsuits.

  2. Employers only have 30 days after receipt of a state court lawsuit to remove the case to federal court. The determination of whether to remove a case has to be made quickly. Therefore, it is important to get counsel involved in the litigation as early as possible so that the removal date—which cannot be extended under any circumstances—is not missed.

For additional analysis of this opinion, I suggest the following:


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Supreme Court’s expanded pleading rules give employers added tool to combat lawsuits


Today, I am going to get a little academic, but I promise I’ll bring it back around at the end with some practical information for employers.

Two years ago, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly [PDF], the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to state a legal claim and survive a motion to dismiss, a legal pleading (the initial filing in a lawsuit) cannot simply recite the elements of a cause of action or make an unsubstantiated conclusion, but must set forth a claim that is “plausible on its face.” The Court explained:

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the “grounds” of his “entitlement to relief” requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action’s elements will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all of the complaint’s allegations are true. (internal citations omitted).

For example, in discrimination case, I sometimes see complaints that simply say, “X was terminated because of his race in violation of Title VII.” While Twombly was an antitrust case, if it’s rationale extended to employment cases these types of pleadings would not suffice. Twombly, however, left open the question of whether it applied beyond the antitrust arena.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court decided Ashcroft v. Iqbal [PDF], which extended the Twombly pleading rules to an unlawful detention case. In the wake of the Court’s expansion of Twombly outside the antitrust context, it is likely that its pleadings requirements will apply in all civil litigation. In other words, a discrimination plaintiff should no longer be able to simply speculate that discrimination occurred, or make bald, unsubstantiated conclusions. A discrimination plaintiff will have to plead sufficient, specific facts to at least put the employer on notice of what is alleged to have actually happened.

The Ashcroft decision has three big practical implications for employers:

  1. Employees will be required to file much more detailed complaints, and employers will know at the earliest stages of the lawsuit exactly what is being alleged. Employers will no longer have to engage in expensive discovery just to learn the theory of the plaintiff’s case.

  2. Employers will be able to make more accurate analyses of cases earlier. Earlier analysis of a case’s strengths and weaknesses will allow employers to decide early in the litigation whether a case is worth fighting, or should be settled earlier. Thus, companies should save defense costs.

  3. More lawsuits should be dismissed for failing to state a claim. In theory, the less meritorious lawsuits will fall by the wayside, saving businesses the cost of defending nuisance lawsuits.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ohio Supreme Court may be asked to clarify Coolidge


In addition to providing a good summary of the history of the public policy wrongful discharge tort in Ohio, Klopfenstein v. NK Parts Industries, Inc. also sets the stage for a potential battle in the Ohio Supreme Court over the proper statute of limitations for a claim under Coolidge v. Riverdale Local School Dist. Coolidge held that an employer cannot discharge an employee who is receiving temporary total disability workers' compensation benefits solely on the basis of absenteeism or inability to work, when the absence or inability to work is directly related to an allowed condition. The Cuyahoga County Court of Appeals, in Brooks v. Qualchoice, held that Coolidge does not create a new public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine, but instead illustrates conduct that is retaliatory under R.C. 4123.90 (the workers' comp anti-retaliation provision). In Klopfenstein, the Third District Court of Appeals disagreed, holding, "Coolidge creates an independent public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine." These divergent holding have significant implications, because the two claims have vastly different statutes of limitations. An aggrieved employee has 4 years to file a public policy wrongful discharge claim, as compared to 180 days for a retaliation claim pursuant to R.C. 4123.90. The workers' comp retaliation statute also has strict notice requirements that a claimant must meet as a prerequisite to bringing suit, in addition to more restrictive damages.

Klopfenstein will not be the last word on this issue. Whether in an appeal from that case, or some future case, the Ohio Supreme Court will be called upon to clarify its Coolidge holding and definitively state the proper statute of limitations. In anticipation of that future battle, let me suggest that Klopfenstein was wrongly decided. R.C. 4123.90 states: "No employer shall discharge ... any employee because the employee filed a claim ... under the workers’ compensation act for an injury ... which occurred in the course of and arising out of his employment with that employer." If an employee is terminated because of workers' comp-related absences, that employee is being terminated because of the claim. Thus, the termination falls squarely within the coverage of R.C. 4123.90. It is the job of the legislature, and not the courts, to expand the statute of limitations for Coolidge claims if it sees fit to do so.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Small claims court needs reform


Did you know that a company cannot represent itself in an Ohio small claims court? An employee is free to go to small claims court and file any claim $3,000 or under against an employer, and the employer must hire an attorney to represent it at court. Even though a corporation is defined as a "person" under the law, and an individual can appear pro se, a company that tries to exercise the same right will be barred under the guise of the unauthorized practice of law. This rule needs to be fixed. Because the cost of defense often outweighs the cost of the claim, how is justice served if companies have little incentive to litigate? Often, however, companies want to challenge the claim, because at stake is the sanctity of a policy that the employer has spent time and money having drafted, implementing, and enforcing. Also, companies need to send the message that they will not roll over even for small claims brought by employees. So, what you are left with is a company that may not want to pay to fight the claim, and if they do pay to fight it, a pro se plaintiff that will be outmatched in court by having to face cross examination by a hired professional. This system is crying out for reform. Ohio law should be amended so that a company can appear in small claims court through a corporate officer and without an attorney. This amendment will allow the system to work as it is intended, so that small claims can actually be tried with small costs and small hassle.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Vicarious release held ineffective


Edwards v. Ohio Inst. of Cardiac Care is not earth shattering for what it says, but I write because of the novel argument made by the employer in trying to escape a jury verdict. It is well-settled Ohio law that supervisors and managers are jointly and severally liable with their employers for their own acts of discrimination. After suffering a $200,000 jury verdict on a sexual harassment claim, the employer in Edwards made the novel argument to the appellate court that the plaintiff's pretrial settlement with the accused supervisor extinguished the company's liability. While the Court seemed impressed with the creativity of the argument, it ultimately rejected it (the case was reversed on other grounds relating to the jury instructions). The Court reasoned that the supervisor is not liable simply as the employer's agent, but is liable because the statutory definition of "employer" in R.C. 4112.02(A)(2) includes individual supervisors and managers whose conduct violates the law. In other words, the supervisor and the company are co-employers. Thus, a settlement with one does not extinguish the liability of the other. In other words, if you want to obtain a release, you have to make sure you are a party to the agreement.

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.