512 U.S. 246 (1994), 92-2058, Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris

Docket Nº:No. 92-2058
Citation:512 U.S. 246, 114 S.Ct. 2239, 129 L.Ed.2d 203, 62 U.S.L.W. 4537
Case Date:June 20, 1994
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 246

512 U.S. 246 (1994)

114 S.Ct. 2239, 129 L.Ed.2d 203, 62 U.S.L.W. 4537




No. 92-2058

United States Supreme Court

June 20, 1994[*]

Argued April 28, 1994



Respondent Norris was terminated from his job as an aircraft mechanic by petitioner Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. (HAL), after refusing to sign a maintenance record, as required by his collective-bargaining agreement (CBA), for a plane he considered unsafe, and reporting his concerns to the Federal Aviation Administration. In separate state-court suits against HAL and its officers, also petitioners, he alleged, inter alia, that he had been wrongfully discharged in violation of the public policy expressed in the Federal Aviation Act and implementing regulations and in violation of Hawaii's Whistleblower Protection Act. The court dismissed these tort claims as pre-empted by the Railway Labor Act's (RLA's) mandatory arbitral mechanism for so-called "minor" disputes, which grow "out of grievances or out of the interpretation and application of agreements concerning [pay rates], rules, or working conditions," 45 U.S.C. § 153 First (i). The State Supreme Court reversed, concluding that § 153 First (i)'s plain language does not support pre-emption of disputes independent of a labor agreement, and interpreting the opinion in Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn., 491 U.S. 299, to limit RLA pre-emption to disputes involving contractually defined rights. The court rejected petitioners' argument that the claims were pre-empted because resort to the CBA was necessary to determine whether Norris was discharged for insubordination, pointing to Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc., 486 U.S. 399, in which this Court held that the Labor-Management Relations Act, 1947 (LMRA), pre-empts state law only if a state-law claim is dependent on the interpretation of a CBA, and that purely factual questions about an employee's conduct and the employer's conduct and motives do not require interpreting such an agreement's terms.


The RLA does not pre-empt Norris' state-law causes of action. Pp. 252-266.

(a) The minor disputes contemplated by the RLA are those that are grounded in a CBA. See, e. g., Consolidated Rail Corporation, 491 U.S., at 305. The RLA pre-emption standard for resolving such disputes that has emerged from the relevant cases, see, e. g., Atchison, T. & S. F. R. Co. v. Buell, 480 U.S. 557, is that a state-law cause of action

Page 247

is not pre-empted if it involves rights and obligations that exist independent of the CBA. This standard is virtually identical to the preemption standard employed in cases involving § 301 of the LMRA. Given the convergence of the two standards, Lingle provides an appropriate framework for addressing RLA pre-emption, and its standard — that the existence of a potential CBA-based remedy does not deprive an employee of independent remedies available under state law — is adopted to resolve such claims. Elgin, J. & E. R. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711; Consolidated Rail Corporation, 491 U.S., at 302, distinguished. Pp. 252-266.

(b) Under Lingle, Norris' state-law claims are independent of the CBA. Petitioners' argument that resort to the CBA is necessary to determine whether Norris was discharged for cause is foreclosed by Lingle's teaching that the issue whether an employer's actions make out the element of discharge under state law is a purely factual question. Similarly, Norris' failure to sign the maintenance record is not relevant to the determination of his state-law tort claims. P. 266.

74 Haw. 648, 847 P.2d 263 (first case), and 74 Haw. 235, 842 P.2d 634 (second case), affirmed.

Kenneth B. Hipp argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs were David J. Dezzani and Margaret C. Jenkins.

Susan Oki Mollway argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were Edward DeLappe Boyle, Marsha S. Berzon, Mark Schneider, and Laurence Gold.

Richard H. Seamon argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. On the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Hunger, Deputy Solicitor General Kneedler, John F. Manning, and William Kanter.[†]

Page 248

Justice Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action involves the scope of federal pre-emption under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The RLA, which was extended in 1936 to cover the airline industry, see Act of Apr. 10, 1936, ch. 166, 49 Stat. 1189; 45 U.S.C. §§ 181-188, sets up a mandatory arbitral mechanism to handle disputes "growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions," 45 U.S.C. § 153 First (i). The question in this case is whether an aircraft mechanic who claims that he was discharged for refusing to certify the safety of a plane that he considered unsafe and for reporting his safety concerns to the Federal Aviation Administration may pursue available state-law remedies for wrongful discharge, or whether he may seek redress only through the RLA's arbitral mechanism. We hold that the RLA does not pre-empt his state-law causes of action.


Respondent Grant Norris is an aircraft mechanic licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His aircraft mechanic's license authorizes him to approve an airplane and

Page 249

return it to service after he has made, supervised, or inspected certain repairs performed on that plane. See Certification: Airmen Other Than Flight Crew members, 14 CFR §§ 65.85 and 65.87 (1987). If he were to approve any aircraft on which the repairs did not conform to FAA safety regulations, the FAA could suspend or revoke his license. See Maintenance, Preventive Maintenance, Rebuilding and Alteration, 14 CFR § 43.12 (1992).

On February 2, 1987, respondent was hired by petitioner Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. (HAL). Many of the terms of his employment were governed by a collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiated between the carrier and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Under the CBA, respondent's duties included inspecting and repairing all parts of a plane and its engine. On July 15, 1987, during a routine preflight inspection of a DC-9 plane, he noticed that one of the tires was worn. When he removed the wheel, respondent discovered that the axle sleeve, which should have been mirror smooth, was scarred and grooved. This damaged sleeve could cause the landing gear to fail. Respondent recommended that the sleeve be replaced, but his supervisor ordered that it be sanded and returned to the plane. This was done, and the plane flew as scheduled. At the end of the shift, respondent refused to sign the maintenance record to certify that the repair had been performed satisfactorily and that the airplane was fit to fly. See 14 CFR § 43.9(a) (1992). The supervisor immediately suspended him pending a termination hearing. Respondent immediately went home and called the FAA to report the problem with the sleeve.[1]

Respondent then invoked the grievance procedure outlined in the CBA, and a "Step 1" grievance hearing was held

Page 250

on July 31, 1987. Petitioner HAL accused respondent of insubordination, claiming that his refusal to sign the record violated the CBA's provision that an aircraft mechanic "may be required to sign work records in connection with the work he performs." Respondent relied on the CBA's guarantees that an employee may not be discharged without just cause and may not be disciplined for refusing to perform work that is in violation of health or safety laws. The hearing officer terminated respondent for insubordination.

Still conforming to the CBA procedures, respondent appealed his termination, seeking a "Step 3" grievance hearing. Before this hearing took place, HAL offered to reduce respondent's punishment to suspension without pay, but warned him that "any further instance of failure to perform [his] duties in a responsible manner" could result in discharge. Respondent did not respond to this offer, nor, apparently, did he take further steps to pursue his grievance through the CBA procedures.

On December 18, 1987, respondent filed suit against HAL in Hawaii Circuit Court. His complaint included two wrongful-discharge torts — discharge in violation of the public policy expressed in the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and implementing regulations, and discharge in violation of Hawaii's Whistleblower Protection Act, Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 378-61 to 378-69 (1988).[2] He also alleged that HAL had breached the CBA. HAL removed the action to the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii, which dismissed the breach-of-contract claim as pre-empted by the

Page 251

RLA, and remanded the other claims to the state trial court. The trial court then dismissed respondent's claim of discharge in violation of public policy, holding that it, too, was pre-empted by the RLA's provision of exclusive arbitral procedures. The state court certified its order as final to permit respondent to take an immediate appeal.

In the meantime, respondent had filed a second lawsuit in state court, naming as defendants three of HAL's officers who allegedly directed, confirmed, or ratified the claimed retaliatory discharge.[3] He again sought relief for, among other things, discharge in violation of public policy and of the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act. The Hawaii trial court dismissed these two counts as pre-empted by the RLA and certified the case for immediate appeal.

The Supreme Court of Hawaii reversed in both cases, concluding that the RLA did not pre-empt respondent's state tort actions. Norris v. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., 74 Haw. 235, 842 P.2d 634 (1992); 74 Haw. 648, 847 P.2d 263 (1993). That court concluded that the plain language of § 153 First(i) does not...

To continue reading