First Circuit Upholds Federal Pre-Emption of Massachusetts Wage Act Claims

By Patrick M. Curran Jr. and Lorenzo R. Cabantog © Ogletree Deakins July 15, 2021
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On June 10, the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a plaintiff's lawsuit alleging, among other things, failure to pay wages under the Massachusetts Wage Act. In Rose v. RTN Federal Credit Union, the First Circuit held that the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) pre-empted the plaintiff's wage claims because she was a member of a union and because her employer, RTN Federal Credit Union, had an existing collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the union that governed her wages and overtime pay.

Background of the Case

The plaintiff was employed by RTN as a member services representative, a position covered under the CBA between RTN and the Office and Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, Local 6. The plaintiff usually worked at RTN's branch in Hudson, Mass., but the credit union periodically assigned her to its Dedham, Mass., branch. The plaintiff alleged that her assignment to the Dedham branch increased her typical commute by approximately one hour each way, and that RTN's failure to compensate her for the extra travel time violated the Massachusetts Wage Act. She also alleged that RTN violated a Massachusetts regulation, 454 Mass. Code Regs. 27.04(4)(b), which provides that an employee who "regularly works at a fixed location" must be compensated for the extra time and expense involved in traveling to a location other than the employee's "regular work site." The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against RTN seeking unpaid wages and expenses, as well as unpaid overtime for any workweeks that exceeded 40 hours due to her additional commuting time.

The Labor Management Relations Act

The question before the First Circuit was whether the LMRA pre-empted the plaintiff's state-law wage claims, and specifically whether she could advance her state law claims separately from the CBA.

The LMRA is a body of federal labor law that governs the interpretation of collective bargaining agreements between employers and unions. Generally, if a plaintiff's state-based employment claims require interpretation of one or more provisions of a collective bargaining agreement, the claims come within the ambit of the LMRA and thus are pre-empted by federal law. But not every dispute concerning employment is pre-empted by the LMRA. Indeed, where state law establishes a substantive right, obligation, or prohibition independent of any CBA, the LMRA is not implicated and the state law claim may proceed.

Court Affirms Dismissal of Wage Act Claim

In Rose, the First Circuit dismissed the Massachusetts Wage Act claim against RTN because adjudicating the claim would require the interpretation of a provision in the CBA between RTN and the union. The CBA in question contained a provision that governed "temporary transfers" of employees between branches.

The First Circuit explained that lawsuits involving an analysis or calculation of what is owed to an employee will "almost always" rely on interpretations and applications of the CBA in question, and thus will be pre-empted by the LMRA. According to the First Circuit, whether RTN lawfully compensated the plaintiff for her travel time, any overtime hours, or the minimum wage would require an analysis of the CBA provisions governing "hours of work," "premium time," "overtime," and "classification and wages." Accordingly, the First Circuit upheld the district court's ruling that the plaintiff was bound to pursue her claims through the grievance and arbitration provision of the CBA.

Takeaways for Employers

Employers with union-organized workplaces and employees may want to remain mindful of the potential federal pre-emption issues raised by employee legal claims that implicate the provisions of a CBA. Often, although certainly not always, employment claims brought by union members involving the nonpayment of wages, overtime, or other benefits and compensation, including workers' compensation issues, will be pre-empted by the LMRA if the CBA governs such terms and conditions of employment. Employers presented with a union member-employee's lawsuit may want to carefully examine the terms of the CBA in order to determine whether, and to what extent, the claims asserted may be subject to an LMRA pre-emption defense.

Patrick M. Curran Jr. and Lorenzo R. Cabantog are attorneys with Ogletree Deakins in Boston. © 2021 Ogletree Deakins. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission. 

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