Prof'l Airline Flight Control Ass'n v. Spirit Airlines Inc.

Decision Date25 March 2022
Docket NumberCASE NO. 21-60396-CIV-ALTMAN/Hunt
Citation593 F.Supp.3d 1173
Parties The PROFESSIONAL AIRLINE FLIGHT CONTROL ASSOCIATION, Plaintiff, v. SPIRIT AIRLINES INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Florida

D. Marcus Braswell, Jr., Sugarman & Susskind P.A., Coral Gables, FL, for Plaintiff.

Ten Eyitene Stallings, Ephraim David Abreu, Jones Day, Miami, FL, Douglas W. Hall, Pro Hac Vice, Nikki L. McArthur, Pro Hac Vice, Jones Day, Washington, DC, for Defendant.

ORDER

ROY K. ALTMAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

This is a labor dispute under the Railway Labor Act. For years, Spirit's flight-dispatch officers worked out of a single control center in South Florida. Tired of weather disruptions and hurricane season, Spirit announced plans to open a second control center in Orlando. As a result of this announcement, Spirit and the dispatch-officers’ union began negotiating—hoping to ameliorate the impact this new hub might have on Spirit's employees. When those negotiations failed, the union filed this lawsuit, in which it asks us to enjoin Spirit from going through with its plan. As we'll see, however, the Railway Labor Act channels "minor disputes"—like this one—out of federal court and into binding arbitration. Because we thus lack subject-matter jurisdiction over this case, we GRANT Spirit's motion to dismiss.

THE FACTS

Spirit Airlines is a major U.S. commercial airline based in Miramar, Florida. See Am. Compl. [ECF No. 10] ¶¶ 2, 4, 6. Spirit employs about 75 flight-dispatch officers. Id. ¶ 6. Flight-dispatch officers are "highly trained individuals who exercise discretion over major flight decisions." Id. ¶ 5. Those decisions include things like flight paths, fuel loads, and crew composition. Id. The officers make these (complicated) decisions based on several variables—e.g. , aircraft specifications, weather conditions, and airspace restrictions. Id. Once a flight departs, the flight-dispatch officer "share[s] equally" with the commanding pilot the "responsibility for the safety of each flight." Id.

Our Plaintiff, the Professional Airline Flight Control Association ("PAFCA"), serves as both the flight-dispatch officers’ union and their exclusive bargaining representative.

Id. ¶ 3. Spirit and PAFCA entered into a collective bargaining agreement on November 26, 2018. Id. ¶ 7. That agreement is effective from October 16, 2018, through October 15, 2023. See Collective Bargaining Agreement [ECF No. 10-1] (the "CBA") § 21. The CBA automatically renews "for yearly periods thereafter unless written notice of intended change is served in accordance with Section 6 ... of the Railway Labor Act ... by either party ... not sooner than one hundred fifty (150) days prior to October 15, 2023." Id. In other words, the parties may serve a notice to amend—or otherwise renegotiate—the CBA only after May 2023. Id.

There are several CBA provisions that will become important to our overall story. For starters, the CBA contains a broad management-rights clause—which (among many other things) affords Spirit the discretion to transfer all (or part) of its operations. The clause provides: "Except as restricted by an express provision of this Agreement, the Company shall retain all rights to manage and operate its business and workforce, including but not limited to the right ... to transfer operations or part of operations." Id. § 18A. The CBA also says that, "[w]here the Company opts to relocate the dispatch office to a new domicile more than fifty ... miles from its current location, the parties will meet to discuss and agree upon moving expenses for affected employees." Id. § 6D. The parties agreed that "[a]ll orders ... involving transfers [or] relocation ... shall be in writing" and that Spirit would "provide an opportunity for [PAFCA] input regarding functionality and ergonomics ... before the Company relocates the Dispatch Office." Id. §§ 20B, 20D.

For years, Spirit's flight-dispatch officers worked out of Spirit's control center in Miramar, Florida—where Spirit is headquartered. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 6. But the decision to employ only one control center—in a coastal city in South Florida—came with its own problems. Id. ¶ 9. In particular, Spirit was forced to evacuate the Miramar control center whenever it was threatened by hurricanes or other storms. Id. This disrupted Spirit's operations and required Spirit, anytime there was a storm, to transfer its operations temporarily from its headquarters. Id. Looking to avoid (or minimize) these disruptions in the future, Spirit informed PAFCA, in February 2020, that it planned to relocate the company's control center to Nashville, Tennessee—away from the coast. Id. After this announcement, Spirit and PAFCA began bargaining over employee moving expenses, in accordance with Section 6D of the CBA, id. , which (you'll recall) obliged the parties to "meet to discuss and agree upon moving expenses for affected employees," CBA § 6D.

Some months later, Spirit changed course. See Am. Compl. ¶ 12. In September 2020, Spirit announced that it wouldn't be relocating its dispatch center to Nashville after all. Id. Instead, it proposed both to keep the South Florida center and to open a second control center in Orlando. Id. Following this announcement, the parties restarted their negotiations. Id. ¶ 13. Unfortunately, these discussions were slightly more complex. Id. ¶ 14. While the original relocation plan had required the parties to bargain only over moving expenses, Spirit's proposed dual-control-center setup required the parties to discuss several other issues—including cross-center seniority rights, cross-center shift trading, and employee bidding (for work in one center versus the other). Id.

After some turbulent turns, the negotiations stalled. Id. ¶ 17. In late January 2021—four or so months after the parties started their negotiations on the dual-control centers—Spirit told PAFCA that it was done talking. Id. A week later, Spirit published a press release in an airline periodical, publicly announcing its intention to open a second control center. Id. ¶ 18. In that publication, Spirit said that it would either transfer some employees from the Miramar location or hire new employees to work in Orlando. Id.

Frustrated, PAFCA sued Spirit in federal court, asserting three counts under the Railway Labor Act (the "RLA"): Count I alleges that Spirit violated 45 U.S.C. § 152 Seventh; Count II avers that Spirit violated 45 U.S.C. § 152 First; and Count III claims that Spirit violated 45 U.S.C. § 153. See generally Am. Compl. As redress, PAFCA asks us to enjoin Spirit from opening a second control center. Id. Spirit, in turn, filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), contending that we lack subject-matter jurisdiction over PAFCA's claims because PAFCA's grievances constitute "minor disputes" under the RLA.1 This Order follows.

THE LAW

"Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am. , 511 U.S. 375, 377, 114 S.Ct. 1673, 128 L.Ed.2d 391 (1994). "Since the courts of the United States are courts of limited jurisdiction, there is a presumption against its existence." United States v. Rojas , 429 F.3d 1317, 1320 (11th Cir. 2005) (cleaned up); see also Bors v. Preston , 111 U.S. 252, 255, 4 S.Ct. 407, 28 L.Ed. 419 (1884) (Harlan, J.) ("[T]he courts of the Union, being courts of limited jurisdiction, the presumption, in every stage of the cause, is that [they are] without their jurisdiction, unless the contrary appears from the record."). "A defendant can move to dismiss a complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction by either facial or factual attack." Stalley ex rel. U.S. v. Orlando Reg'l Healthcare Sys., Inc. , 524 F.3d 1229, 1232 (11th Cir. 2008). In our case, Spirit has launched both a facial and a factual attack. Because we think that jurisdiction is plainly absent on the face of the complaint, we stop there—addressing only the facial challenge.2

In a facial attack, "the plaintiff is left with safeguards similar to those retained when a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is raised." McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cnty. , 501 F.3d 1244, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007) (cleaned up). That means we look to the complaint "and see if the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction." Id. (cleaned up). In doing so, "the allegations in [the] complaint are [generally] taken as true for the purposes of the motion." Stalley , 524 F.3d at 1232–33 (cleaned up). At the same time, "[o]ur duty to accept the facts in the complaint as true does not require us to ignore specific factual details of the pleading in favor of general or conclusory allegations." Flylux, LLC v. Aerovias de Mex., S.A. de C.V. , 618 F. App'x 574, 577 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Griffin Indus., Inc. v. Irvin , 496 F.3d 1189, 1205–06 (11th Cir. 2007) ). "Indeed, when the exhibits contradict the general and conclusory allegations of the pleading, the exhibits govern." Id. (quoting Griffin Indus. , 496 F.3d at 1205–06 ).3

ANALYSIS
A. This Case Presents a Minor Dispute

"Concerned that labor disputes would lead to strikes bringing railroads to a halt, Congress enacted the [RLA] in 1926 to promote peaceful and efficient resolution of those disputes." Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Bhd. of Locomotive Eng'rs , 558 U.S. 67, 72, 130 S.Ct. 584, 175 L.Ed.2d 428 (2009). The RLA "was extended in 1936 to cover the airline industry." Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris , 512 U.S. 246, 248, 114 S.Ct. 2239, 129 L.Ed.2d 203 (1994). The RLA "groups disputes into two categories, major and minor." Empresa Ecuatoriana De Aviacion, S.A. v. Dist. Lodge No. 100 , 690 F.2d 838, 842 (11th Cir. 1982). As we'll see, "[w]hether the court has jurisdiction to resolve the underlying contractual dispute depends on whether it is ‘major’ or ‘minor.’ " Bhd. of Locomotive Eng'rs v. Union Pac. R.R. Co. , 879 F.3d 754, 757 (7th Cir. 2017).

So, to start, major...

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