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Sturge v. Northwest Airlines, Inc.: US District Court : LABOR | ARBITRATION | CONTRACT - CBA gave no individual employee right to compel arbitration, only union, employer

Civil No. 07-499 (JRT/JJG)
Richard T. Wylie, ATTORNEY AT LAW, 701 Fourth Avenue South,
Suite 500, Minneapolis, MN 55415, for plaintiff.
Timothy R. Thornton, Molly M. Borg, and Timothy G. Gelinske, BRIGGS
& MORGAN, P.A., 80 South Eighth Street, Suite 2200, Minneapolis, MN
55402, for defendant.
Plaintiff Caleb R. Sturge was discharged by defendant Northwest Airlines
(Northwest) for violating company drug policies. Following his termination, plaintiff
filed two grievances related to post-employment benefits. Northwest has not responded
to those grievances and has refused Sturges request to submit them to arbitration. Sturge
filed this lawsuit seeking to compel Northwest to arbitrate. This case was tried before the
Court on July 30, 2008. The Court received final written submissions from the parties on
October 16, 2008. Based on the entire record and proceedings, the testimony at trial, and
the arguments of counsel, the Court now enters the following Findings of Fact and
Conclusions of Law.
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1. All of the Findings of Fact set forth herein are undisputed or have been
proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
2. To the extent that the Courts Conclusions of Law include what may be
considered Findings of Fact, they are incorporated herein by reference.
A. The Parties
3. Northwest is an air carrier as defined by the Railway Labor Act (RLA).
45 U.S.C. 181.
4. Sturge was employed by Northwest as a pilot until October 31, 2003.
Sturge, like all other Northwest pilots, is a member of the Air Line Pilots Association
B. The Collective Bargaining Agreement
5. ALPA represents the pilots and in their behalf negotiate[s] and conclude[s]
a[] [collective bargaining] agreement with [Northwest] as to hours of labor, wages and
other employment conditions covering the pilots in the employ of [Northwest] in
accordance with the provisions of the Railway Labor Act. (Defs Ex. 2, 1(A).)
6. This collective bargaining agreement (CBA) establishes a comprehensive
process for resolving disputes between pilots and Northwest. The process for the filing
and resolution of pilot grievances is described in Section 20:
Grievances . . . must be filed with the proper officer of [Northwest] within
120 days after the pilot reasonably would have had knowledge of the
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* * *
A request for an investigation and hearing setting forth a full and complete
statement of the facts out of which such grievance arose, the provision or
provisions of the Agreement upon which the grievance is based and a
specific request for relief shall be filed with the Managing Director of
Flight Administration, or his designee, with a copy to the Vice President of
Flight Operations.
* * *
Such investigation and hearing shall be held by the Managing Director of
Flight Administration, or his designee, on the third Friday of the month
following the month in which the grievance was filed (unless a different
date is mutually agreed upon). [Northwest] shall issue its written decision
no later than 15 days following the date of the hearing and will send a copy
thereof to the pilot, the MEC Grievance Chairman, the LEC Grievance
Chairman and ALPA Representation Office MSP.
(Id., 20 (A) (C).)
7. Section 20 of the CBA also explains what occurs if Northwest does not
address a grievance:
If any decision required to be made by [Northwest] under the provisions of
this section is not announced within the time limit prescribed herein, it will
be deemed a denial and, at the option of [ALPA], the dispute may be
submitted to the Northwest Airlines Pilots System Board of Adjustment,
with the total expenses and compensation of the neutral member and court
reporter to be borne by [Northwest].
(Id., 20(E).)
8. Section 21 of the CBA explains the role of the System Board of Adjustment
(System Board):
The [System] Board shall consider any dispute properly submitted to it by
the President of [ALPA] within the time limits provided in . . . this
Agreement. The [System] Board shall also consider any dispute properly
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submitted to it by the Vice President of Labor Relations-Flight of
(Id., 21(D).)
9. In a June 4, 2002, Letter of Agreement between Northwest and ALPA, the
company and the union agreed to begin a process in June 2000 to eliminate the current
backlog of grievances. (Pl.s Ex. 2 at 31-132.) The letter goes on to describe that
process, stating:
With respect to any non-discharge grievance filed after September 1, 2000,
it is the mutual goal of the parties to prevent the accumulation of a backlog
of outstanding grievances by implementing the following grievance
prevention and resolution program as a supplement to Sections 19 and 20 of
the [CBA][.]
* * *
The parties recognize that the [CBA] permits individual pilots to file
individual grievances. All individual, non-discharge grievances that are not
settled shall be subject to the arbitration commitments set forth in
subparagraph A.2 above and Paragraph B. below.
(Id. at 31-132 to -133) Subparagraph A.2 sets forth various details as to how and when
grievances would be scheduled. (Id. at 31-132.)1 The reference to Paragraph B.
appears to have been a typographical error, as there is no subheading B in the
remainder of the letter. (Id. at 31-133 to -135.) In a later passage the letter also states:
1 The parties note that approximately one year after Sturges grievances were filed, this
letter was amended and incorporated into the CBA as Letter 2000-03A. (See Pl.s Ex. 44.) In
that version of this material, this passage appears to indicate that individual, non-discharge
grievances are subject to the full range of arbitration commitments set forth throughout the letter.
(Id. at 4.) Nothing in Letter 2000-03A, however, goes any further than the June 4, 2002, letter
toward indicating a change in ALPAs role as a gate-keeper for pilots seeking to arbitrate a
denied grievance before the System Board. As is further explained in the Conclusions of Law
given below, this is the central issue before the Court. Because the alterations in Letter 2000-
03A do not touch on this issue, no further consideration of that letter is necessary.
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Any grievances not resolved at this point will be assigned to the next
scheduled arbitrator who has not yet been assigned a case. Each party will
have the right three times per year to pass a case to either the next open
arbitrator or the second subsequent open arbitrator, in the chronological
order of scheduled arbitration dates.
(Id. at 31-134.) The letter provides no additional explanation of the phrase at this
C. Sturges Employment and Termination
10. Following allegations that Sturge had received a controlled substance
delivered through Fed Ex, he was terminated by Northwest. (Defs Ex. 1 at 9-10.)
Sturge grieved his termination pursuant to the CBA, and ALPA ultimately appealed his
termination to the System Board. (See Def.s Ex. 1.) On October 5, 2004, the System
Board upheld Sturges termination. (Id. at 15.)
11. On November 22, 2004, Northwest sent Sturge a letter indicating that it had
determined he had a disability, and that he was entitled to a disability retirement
pension. (Pl.s Ex. 5.) However, the letter also included the following passage:
Due to your October 30, 2003 discharge from employment for just cause
(as determined by the NWA/ALPA System Board of Adjustment), you and
your otherwise eligible family members are not eligible for Retirement Pass
(Id.) Retirement Pass Privileges are benefits typically given to retired Northwest pilots
allowing reduced rate transportation on Northwest flights. (See Defs Ex. 9A.)
12. Under Section 22.D.3 of the CBA, pilots receiving a Disability Retirement
Pension under the Pilots Pension Plan retain a limited right to return to active duty upon
demonstrating their fitness to fly. (Def.s Ex. 2 at 22-2 to -3.)
- 6 -
13. Following Sturges discharge, Northwest determined that he was ineligible
to invoke the reinstatement provision in Section 22.D.3 of the CBA because he had been
terminated for cause. (See Defs Ex. 9A.)
D. Sturges Post-Employment Grievances
14. On March 22, 2005, Sturge sent two grievances to Northwest challenging
its determination that he was ineligible for either pass privileges or reinstatement. (See
Pl.s Ex. 6, 7.)
15. On April 5, 2005, ALPA sent a letter to Sturge indicating that it had
reviewed his grievance concerning his reinstatement rights, and found no basis,
contractual or otherwise for his complaint. (Defs Ex. 9A.) ALPA explained that as a
pilot discharged for just cause, you have forfeited your seniority rights and your right to
return to duty. (Defs Ex. 9A.)
16. On April 25, 2005, ALPA sent a similar letter addressing Sturges
grievance concerning pass privileges, indicating again that it found no basis, contractual
or otherwise for his complaint. (Id.) ALPA explained that upon being discharged for
cause, the Company exercised its right to revoke your pass privileges, in accordance with
its pass policy. (Id.)
17. Northwest did not schedule a hearing or otherwise announce a decision on
Sturges grievances within the timeframe set by the CBA.
18. Representatives of ALPA convened on May 4, 2005, to determine whether
to pursue Sturges grievances to the System Board. (See Def.s Ex. 9A.) Sturge declined
- 7 -
to attend this meeting. (Id.) On June 22, 2005, ALPA sent a letter to Sturge indicating
that support of your case before the System Board of Adjustment is not warranted.
(Id.) The letter concludes by stating:
The bottom line is that you are a terminated pilot fortunate enough to be
receiving a disability pension benefit. The termination has not affected
your disability pension benefit. It has not. The termination does affect pass
benefits and your ability to return to work from a disability retirement.
19. Northwest took no further action on Sturges grievances. Sturge
subsequently filed this action seeking to compel Northwest to arbitrate those grievances
before the System Board.
I. The Right of Individual Pilots to Invoke the Jurisdiction of the System Board
As this Court previously noted in its ruling on Northwests motion for judgment
on the pleadings, the RLA does not grant Sturge a statutory right to compel arbitration.
See Sturge v. Nw. Airlines, Inc., No. 07-499, 2008 WL 835676, at *2 (D. Minn. Mar. 27,
2008); see also Martin v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 390 F.3d 601, 608-09 (8th Cir. 2004)
([P]laintiff contends that the RLA provides airline employees with a statutory right to
pursue arbitration individually before an airlines system board of adjustment. We
disagree.). In addition, this Court is barred from adjudicating Sturges grievances on the
merits. See Smith v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 414 F.3d 949, 953 (8th Cir. 2005) (noting that a
federal court may not intrude upon the adjustment boards authority by deciding the
merits of [a] collective bargaining dispute). Consequently, the narrow question at issue
- 8 -
in these proceedings is whether the CBA negotiated between the ALPA and Northwest
affords Sturge a contractual right to compel arbitration without ALPAs consent.2 See
AT&T Techs., Inc. v. Commcns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 649 (1986) ([T]he
question of arbitrability whether a collective bargaining agreement creates a duty for
the parties to arbitrate the particular grievance is undeniably an issue for judicial
While courts interpret collective bargaining agreements in the same way [as]
other contracts, technically collective bargaining agreements are interpreted under
federal law. Intl Bhd. of Elec. Workers, Local 176 v. Balmoral, 293 F.3d 402, 405 (7th
Cir. 2002). Indeed, federal courts are charged with creat[ing] a body of federal common
law that applies to disputes arising out of collective bargaining agreements. Sweeney v.
Westvaco Co., 926 F.2d 29, 36 (1st Cir. 1991) (Breyer, C.J.). Accordingly, [a] court
asked to compel arbitration must interpret the relevant language of the parties collective
bargaining agreement in light of well-worn principles of labor contract interpretation.
Balmoral, 293 F.3d at 405 (internal quotation marks omitted). Those principles include
the rule that where the agreement contains a mandatory arbitration provision, there is
generally a presumption in favor of finding arbitrability. Id. However, a party cannot
be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit.
2 Northwest also argues that as a pilot who had been terminated for cause, Sturge was
ineligible to even a file a grievance. Because the Court concludes that even if Sturge was
eligible to file a grievance he was ineligible to compel arbitration without the consent of ALPA,
the Court need not address this question.
- 9 -
Crown Cork & Seal Co. v. Intl Assn of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 501 F.3d 912,
916 (8th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Northwest argues that the CBA unambiguously limits the right to invoke the
jurisdiction of the System Board to two parties: Northwest and ALPA. Thus, Northwest
argues, Sturge has no contractual right to compel arbitration without ALPAs consent.
Because ALPA has not sought to compel arbitration in this case, Northwest argues that it
has no contractual obligation to arbitrate Sturges grievances.
Northwests position is strongly supported by several provisions in Section 21 of
the CBA. First, and most significantly, Section 21(D)s list of the parties able to convene
the System Board is limited to ALPA and Northwest. (See Def.s Ex. 2, 21(D).) This
limitation is consistent with numerous other passages in Section 21, which are expressly
premised on the Association (ALPA) and the Company (Northwest) constituting the
two parties engaged in any arbitration proceedings. (See id., 21(F) (providing specific
instructions for how ALPA and Northwest should address their respective appeals to the
System Board, without including a provision for individual pilots); 21(G) ([T]he
Company and Association shall . . . agree upon the selection of a neutral member to sit
with the Board); 21(H) (noting that Northwest employees may be called as witnesses
at the request of either the Association representatives or the Company
representatives); 21(I) (explaining that the System Boards decision shall be final,
binding and conclusive between the Company and the Association and anyone they may
represent having an interest in the dispute); 21(K) (The Company and the Association
shall provide for a court reporter to attend all arbitration hearings.)). No provision in
- 10 -
Section 21 which is titled System Board of Adjustment references appeals lodged
without the consent of either ALPA or Northwest.
As Northwest points out, even more specific guidance is available in Section
20(E) of the CBA. This provision states:
If any decision required to be made by [Northwest] under the provisions of
this section is not announced within the time limit prescribed herein, it will
be deemed a denial and, at the option of [ALPA], the dispute may be
submitted to the Northwest Airlines Pilots System Board of Adjustment,
with the total expenses and compensation of the neutral member and court
reporter to be borne by [Northwest].
(Id., 20(E) (emphasis added).) Northwest contends that this provision specifically
governs here, because it failed to announce a decision on Sturges post-employment
grievances. In those circumstances, Section 20(E) indicates that arbitration is the option
of [ALPA]. (Id.) This limitation is consistent with the provision in Section 20 that
applies when Northwest does announce a decision on a grievance. In those
circumstances, [t]he Association may appeal the Companys decision in writing to the
[System Board] as provided for in Section 21. (Id., 21(D) (emphasis added).) As
noted above, ALPA representatives met to consider submitting Sturges grievances to the
System Board, and declined to do so. Nothing in Section 20 offers any hint that a pilot
would be able to compel arbitration in those circumstances.
Northwests position on the limited jurisdiction of the System Board is further
supported by the testimony elicited at trial. Northwest Senior Vice President of Labor
Relations Robert Brodin testified that he participated in the negotiation of the CBA, and
that it was intended to and does limit the right to invoke the jurisdiction of the System
- 11 -
Board to ALPA and Northwest. Patrick Brennaman, an attorney who participated in the
CBA negotiations on behalf of ALPA, testified that this was his view of the agreement as
well. Brennaman explained that this allows ALPA to serve as a gate-keeper, to prevent
the limited number of arbitration dates from being used on non-meritorious appeals, and
to avoid generating arbitration decisions that are harmful to ALPAs interests. In sum,
Northwests view of the restriction on Sturges ability to invoke the jurisdiction of the
System Board is strongly supported by several clear provisions in the CBA and by both
of the parties that negotiated it.
Despite this evidence and testimony, Sturge maintains that the CBA provides him
with the individual right to compel arbitration. He bases this argument on the June 4,
2002, letter of agreement between Northwest and ALPA, which has now been added as a
supplement to the CBA. (See Def.s Ex. 2 at 21-132 to -135.) As noted above, that letter
squarely states that individual pilots have a right to file grievances, and then notes that
these grievances are subject to the letters arbitration commitments. (Def.s Ex. 2 at
31-133.) The letter also includes a passage generally stating that any unresolved
grievances would be assigned to the next available arbitrator. (Id. at 31-134.) Finally,
Sturge contends that a prior retired pilot, John Robinson, was allowed to pursue
arbitration without ALPA support.
As an initial matter, the Court notes that the circumstances surrounding
Robinsons grievance do not support Sturges interpretation of the CBA. In his testimony
at trial, Robinson agreed that he only had an opportunity to pursue arbitration because
ALPA had made the System Board available to him. (See also Pl.s Ex. 29 (explaining
- 12 -
the terms under which ALPA initially allowed Robinsons case to go forward).) In other
words, Robinsons experience is entirely consistent with the view of the CBA advanced
by Northwest.
As to the text of Letter 51, the Court does not agree that this language is sufficient
to demonstrate an expansion of the jurisdiction of the System Board. As Sturge notes,
this letter clearly states that individual pilots have the right to file non-discharge
grievances. However, the right to file a grievance and the right to invoke the jurisdiction
of the system board are dealt with in separate sections of the CBA, and are clearly
distinct rights relevant to distinct stages of the CBAs dispute resolution process. (See
Def.s Ex. 20, 21.) In short, clarifying the right of certain individuals to file grievances
does not demonstrate a change in restrictions on access to the System Board. As to the
additional passages referencing arbitration, the Court notes that none of the passages
emphasized by Sturge or any other passages in either the June 4, 2002, letter or Letter
2000-03A address whether pilot access to the System Board remained contingent on
ALPAs consent. (See generally Def.s Ex. 2 at 31-132 to -135; Pls Ex. 44.) General
comments about grievances being subject to arbitration commitments, or about
grievances being assigned to the next available arbitrator, are entirely consistent with the
presumption that ALPA would continue to serve as a System Board gate-keeper. Finally,
the Court notes that both Brodin and Brennaman testified that the supplemental
agreement memorialized in the 2002 letter was not intended to impact ALPAs role in
determining which pilot grievances would be arbitrated before the System Board.
- 13 -
In those circumstances, the Court finds that Sturge has failed to demonstrate that
the CBA provides him with an individual right to compel arbitration. The provisions in
sections 20 and 21 of the agreement unambiguously limit that right to ALPA and
Northwest, and nothing in the parties 2002 supplemental agreement expands that right to
individual pilots. Accordingly, Sturges complaint is dismissed.
Based on the Courts Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, IT IS HEREBY
ORDERED that Sturges complaint [Docket No. 1] is DISMISSED.
DATED: March 30, 2009 ____s/ ____
at Minneapolis, Minnesota. JOHN R. TUNHEIM
United States District Judge


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