Nadeau v. Twin Rivers Paper Co.

CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
Citation247 A.3d 717
Docket NumberDocket: Aro-19-500
Decision Date30 March 2021

247 A.3d 717

Bernard NADEAU

Docket: Aro-19-500

Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.

Argued: September 17, 2020
Decided: March 30, 2021

247 A.3d 719

James A. Clifford, Esq., and Andrew P. Cotter, Esq. (orally), Clifford & Clifford, LLC, Kennebunk, for appellant Bernard Nadeau

James R. Erwin, Esq. (orally), Pierce Atwood LLP, Portland, for appellee Twin Rivers Paper Company, LLC

Barbara Archer Hirsch, Esq., Maine Human Rights Commission, Augusta, for amicus curiae Maine Human Rights Commission

John W. VanLonkhuyzen, Esq., Verrill Dana LLP, Portland, for amicus curiae New England Legal Foundation

David G. Webbert, Esq., Carol J. Garvan, Esq., Valerie Z. Wicks, Esq., Braden A. Beard, Esq., and Shelby H. Leighton, Esq., Johnson, Webbert & Young, LLP, Augusta, for amici curiae Maine Employment Lawyers Association and Maine AFL-CIO



Dissent: JABAR, J.


¶1] Bernard Nadeau appeals from the summary judgment entered by the Superior Court (Aroostook County, Stewart, J .) in favor of Twin Rivers Paper Company, LLC (Twin Rivers) on Nadeau's claim under the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (WPA), 26 M.R.S. §§ 831 - 840 (2020). See M.R. Civ. P. 56(c). Nadeau contends that the court erred in concluding that his claim is preempted by the combined effect of section 301 of the federal Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA), 29 U.S.C. § 185(a) (LEXIS through Pub. L. No. 116-259 ), and section 837 of the WPA. We disagree and affirm the summary judgment.


A. Factual Background

[¶2] The following facts are drawn from the parties’ statements of material facts and reflect the record viewed in the

[247 A.3d 720

light most favorable to Nadeau as the nonprevailing party. McCandless v. Ramsey , 2019 ME 111, ¶ 4, 211 A.3d 1157. Nadeau worked at a paper mill in Madawaska from 1980 until his termination in 2016. Twin Rivers owned and operated the mill at all times relevant to the complaint. Nadeau was a member of the United Steelworkers Union, and the terms of his employment were governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiated by the Union and Twin Rivers’ management. The CBA set forth rules governing employee conduct, safety policies, and disciplinary procedures. The CBA also established procedures for employees to bring grievances against management and for independent arbitration of disputes.

¶3] In February 2015, Nadeau made a complaint to his supervisor and others about poor ventilation in his work area and his exposure to toxic chemicals and industrial dust.

[¶4] In November of that same year, Nadeau violated safety protocols while unloading pallets of oil barrels from a tractor-trailer. Although Twin Rivers concluded that Nadeau was subject to termination as a result of this action and his previous violations, Twin Rivers’ management offered Nadeau the opportunity to enter into a last chance agreement (LCA). The LCA allowed Nadeau to avoid termination but required him to forego some protections afforded him by the terms of the CBA.

[¶5] The CBA refers to LCAs in the context of employee discipline:

An employee's personnel and disciplinary record will be cleared of his/her discipline after two (2) years if there has been no further infraction. No discipline that is older than two (2) years (without further infraction) will be used to justify the future discipline of an employee, except in cases of documented Workplace Violence/Harassment Policy violations or flagrant disregard or repeated violations of Safety Rules. Last Chance Letters supersede this language and will expire according to the terms of [the LCA].

[¶6] In Nadeau's case, the LCA provided that any further failure to adhere to work rules would result in immediate termination. In addition, it provided that, if he were terminated, he would be entitled to pursue a grievance under the procedures set forth in the CBA but would "have no recourse to arbitration." The LCA stated, "Thus[,] the Company's decision on a grievance related to your discharge will be afforded due process through the grievance process, but the Company's decision regarding the issue(s) will be final." The LCA also stated that it "will remain in effect for the remainder of your employment." (Emphasis in original.) The LCA also made it clear that Nadeau would be terminated if he "cho[ ]se not to accept this Last Chance Agreement." The Union negotiated the LCA on Nadeau's behalf, and the Union, Nadeau, and Twin Rivers each signed the agreement.

[¶7] After agreeing to the LCA, Nadeau complained to Twin Rivers’ management about unhealthy conditions in his workplace. Later, on August 27, 2016, Nadeau was operating a fork lift at the mill and made contact with a core saw. He did not report this to his supervisor. After an investigation, Twin Rivers’ management concluded that Nadeau's failure to report the accident violated a CBA work rule and therefore triggered the termination clause of the LCA. Twin Rivers terminated Nadeau's employment, and Nadeau filed a grievance pursuant to the CBA and LCA. Twin Rivers offered Nadeau the opportunity to resign, which he declined in favor of pursuing the grievance. Twin Rivers ultimately denied the grievance and upheld Nadeau's termination. Although the CBA contains an arbitration clause, the LCA

[247 A.3d 721

provided that Nadeau gave up any right to appeal the denial of his grievance to arbitration and that Twin Rivers’ decision on any grievance concerning his employment would be final.

B. Procedural History

¶8] On September 11, 2018, Nadeau filed a single-count complaint in the Superior Court, alleging that Twin Rivers violated the WPA, 26 M.R.S. § 833(1), by terminating his employment in retaliation for his complaints regarding unsafe work conditions at the mill. Twin Rivers moved for summary judgment, M.R. Civ. P. 56(b), arguing that no genuine disputes of material fact existed and that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Nadeau's WPA claim was preempted by section 301 of the LMRA, 29 U.S.C. § 185(a), in combination with section 837 of the WPA, 26 M.R.S. § 837. Nadeau opposed the motion.

[¶9] After oral argument on the motion, the trial court concluded that, in light of the undisputed facts, Twin Rivers was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. The court held that adjudication of Nadeau's WPA claim would require it to interpret the CBA in order to decide what rights the CBA confers for purposes of applying section 837 of the WPA but that section 301 of the LMRA removed from state courts the authority to interpret a CBA. The court's analysis relied primarily on United States Supreme Court precedent and relevant case law from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and the United States District Court for the District of Maine.

[¶10] Nadeau timely appealed from the summary judgment.1 See 14 M.R.S. § 1851 (2020) ; M.R. App. P. 2B(c)(1).


[¶11] Nadeau raises three issues on appeal that we view as one common issue: whether Nadeau's WPA claim is preempted by virtue of section 301 of the federal LMRA and section 837 of the WPA.2

[¶12] "We review the entry of an order for summary judgment de novo for errors of law, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was entered." Puritan Med. Prods. Co. LLC v. Copan Italia S.p.A .

, 2018 ME 90, ¶ 10, 188 A.3d 853. "Federal pre-emption, which involves issues of statutory and constitutional interpretation, is a question of law reviewed de novo." Id. ¶ 11 (quotation marks omitted).

A. The Federal Preemption Framework

[¶13] The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution states that the "Constitution, and the Laws of the United States ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land." U.S. Const. art. VI, cl. 2. Where state and federal law conflict, the federal law preempts the conflicting state law. Gibbons v. Ogden , 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 210-11, 6 L.Ed. 23 (1824).

[¶14] The preemptive federal law at issue here is the statutory grant of jurisdiction over disputes relating to collective

[247 A.3d 722

bargaining agreements in industries affecting commerce contained in section 301 of the LMRA. See 29 U.S.C. § 185(a) ("Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce ... may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties ....").

¶15] In a series of decisions from the 1950s to the 1990s, the Supreme Court defined the scope of section 301's preemptive effect. See Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 114 S.Ct. 2068, 129 L.Ed.2d 93 (1994) ; Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 114 S.Ct. 2239, 129 L.Ed.2d 203 (1994) ; Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, 486 U.S. 399, 108 S.Ct. 1877, 100 L.Ed.2d 410 (1988) ; Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck , 471 U.S. 202, 105 S.Ct. 1904, 85 L.Ed.2d 206 (1985) ; Local 174, Teamsters v. Lucas Flour Co. , 369 U.S. 95, 82 S.Ct. 571, 7 L.Ed.2d 593 (1962) ; Textile Workers Union of Am. v. Lincoln Mills of Ala. , 353 U.S. 448, 77 S.Ct. 912, 1 L.Ed.2d 972 (1957).

[¶16] The Court has consistently held that it...

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