UPS Workers' ADA Claims Not Barred by Loss of Grievance

Kevin P. McGowan
BNA Daily Labor Report
December 14, 2012
View the original piece

A union-represented United Parcel Service driver's claim that she was denied light-duty work because of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act is not preempted by Section 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Dec. 12 (Watts v. United Parcel Serv. Inc., 6th Cir., No. 11-3480, 12/12/12).

Reversing a district court's dismissal of Teresa Watts's ADA claim against UPS, the Sixth Circuit said Section 301 preemption, which is intended to prevent inconsistent interpretations of collective bargaining agreements by state courts, does not apply to a federal discrimination claim under the ADA filed in federal court.

The district court had reasoned that Section 301 preempts Watts's ADA claim because the claim required interpretation of the temporary alternative work (TAW) program contained in UPS's bargaining agreement with the union representing Watts. The court ruled that because Watts had not complied with Section 301's six-month limitations period when she filed her ADA claim contesting her exclusion from the TAW program, her ADA claim must be dismissed.

ADA Claim Independent of Contract

Reviving Watts's ADA claim, the Sixth Circuit said the district court misunderstood the origin and purpose of the Section 301 preemption doctrine, which is intended to promote uniformity in interpreting collective bargaining agreements subject to federal labor law and to prevent state courts from ruling on purported state-law claims whose resolutions depend on interpretations of union contracts.

Neither is true in Watts's case, as she sued under a federal statute in federal court asserting rights independent of any collective bargaining agreement, the appeals court said.

“A claim under the ADA is a separate, statutorily created federal cause of action independent from a CBA-based claim under the LMRA,” Judge Helene N. White wrote. “Watts may have had a claim under the CBA, which she could have sought to vindicate according to the provisions of the CBA or by bringing a § 301 contract-based action under the LMRA. That contract right does not negate her statutory right [under the ADA].”

Judges Jeffrey S. Sutton and Richard Allen Griffin joined in the decision.

Three Trials on Plaintiff's Bias Claims

Watts joined UPS in 1990 at its Hamilton, Ohio, facility, and in 1999, she became a package-car driver. In June 2000, she sustained a serious back injury while unloading a large tire from her delivery truck, the court recounted. Diagnosed with acute back strain, Watts was awarded temporary total disability (TTD) payments, including medical treatment, and did not return to work for approximately two years.

In July 2002, UPS had Watts undergo a physical evaluation to determine if she had reached “maximum medical improvement” for workers' compensation purposes. On July 2, the examining doctor reported that Watts had made maximum medical improvement and could return to work in a gradual fashion in a restricted time frame. After a state workers' compensation hearing, UPS ended Watts's TTD payments effective Nov. 27, 2002.

“A claim under the ADA is a separate, statutorily created federal cause of action independent from a CBA-based claim under the LMRA,” Judge White wrote.

Meanwhile, Watts sought entry into the TAW, the company's collectively bargained light-duty program. Employees placed in the TAW performed tasks such as answering phones, pumping gas, and washing vehicles until they were ready to resume their normal job duties. But UPS denied Watts admission to the TAW.

Watts claimed she was denied light duty because of her disability, but UPS asserted she was not qualified for TAW and cited the collective bargaining agreement to support its argument.

Watts filed discrimination charges against UPS and sued in federal district court, asserting sex discrimination and retaliation in addition to an ADA violation. At her first trial, at the close of Watts's case, the court granted UPS's motion for judgment as a matter of law on the ADA claim but sent the sex bias and retaliation claims to a jury.

The jury returned inconsistent verdicts, awarding Watts $200,504 in back pay and other damages. At UPS's request, the court set aside the jury's verdicts and ordered a new trial on sex bias and retaliation.

Following a second trial, the jury returned a verdict for UPS. On appeal by Watts, the Sixth Circuit in 2010 affirmed the trial court's vacating the first jury's verdicts and granting UPS's request for a new trial on sex bias. But the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of UPS's motion for judgment regarding the ADA claim and remanded the ADA claim for trial (378 F. App'x 520, 23 AD Cases 624 (6th Cir. 2010)).

A third trial commenced, but at the close of evidence, the district court granted UPS judgment as a matter of law on the grounds that LMRA Section 301 preempts the ADA claim. The district court added that since Watts did not satisfy Section 301's six-month limitations period, her ADA claim must be dismissed with prejudice. Watts again appealed.

Rationale for Preemption Is Missing

LMRA Section 301 allows union-represented employees to sue employers and/or unions for violations of a collective bargaining agreement, the Sixth Circuit said. Beginning in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the first of a series of decisions holding that Section 301 preempts state rules regarding the meaning of collective bargaining agreements, explaining that “substantive principles of federal labor law must be paramount” when enforcing bargaining agreements.

In Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202, 118 LRRM 3345 (1985), the Supreme Court elaborated “the interests in interpretive uniformity and predictability” that require disputes over labor contracts to be resolved by reference to federal law “also require that the meaning given a contract phrase of term be subject to uniform federal interpretation.”

In Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef Inc., 486 U.S. 399, 128 LRRM 2521 (1988), the Supreme Court said if a state law claim can be resolved without interpreting the bargaining agreement itself, then “the claim is ‘independent' of the agreement for § 301 preemption purposes.”

Development of the § 301 preemption doctrine shows the Supreme Court was mainly interested in preserving uniform federal interpretation of bargaining agreements and in preventing state courts from interpreting such agreements when deciding state law claims, the Sixth Circuit said.

The district court misapplied the § 301 preemption doctrine by ruling that Watts's ADA claim risked interference with those federal interests in interpreting collective bargaining agreements, the appeals court said.

“The animating purpose of § 301 preemption is to ensure that federal labor law uniformly prevails over inconsistent interpretations of [collective bargaining agreements] by state courts,” Judge White wrote. “When a claim asserts a right under federal law, and is filed in federal court, that rationale does not apply.”

“Because Watts's claim is based on a federal cause of action and is in federal court, there is no danger of divergent application of a [collective bargaining agreement's] provisions by state courts; thus, the motivating purpose of § 301 preemption simply does not apply,” the court said.

Also, the “right to be free from disability discrimination” Watts seeks to assert does not arise from the labor contract or state law, but rather from a federal statute affording rights independent of any granted by the bargaining agreement, the Sixth Circuit said.

Railway Labor Act Cases Do Not Apply

UPS cited court decisions holding that the Railway Labor Act, with its mandatory arbitration provisions for certain labor disputes in transportation industries, preempts various federal anti-discrimination claims. The Sixth Circuit, however, said the RLA differs from the LMRA because of its mandatory arbitration provisions, and the LMRA does not similarly preempt claims under the ADA or other federal civil rights laws.

“UPS has not argued that Watts was subject to a mandatory arbitration agreement under the CBA that she failed to exhaust before bringing her ADA claims in federal court,” White wrote. “RLA cases are therefore distinguishable and do not advance UPS's position.”

“Because § 301 does not preempt a claim brought in federal court under the ADA, and Watts's ADA claim does not seek to enforce the [collective bargaining agreement] we reverse and remand for a new trial on the ADA claim,” the court concluded.

Marc D. Mezibov and Susan M. Lawrence of the Law Office of Marc Mezibov in Cincinnati represented Watts. Kasey Bond and Eugene Droder III of Frost Brown Todd in Cincinnati represented UPS.

Text of the opinion is available at

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