• January 3, 2012

Last week, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the principle that a union may waive its members’ rights to bring employment-related claims in court and require those claims to be decided in binding arbitration.

Keith Thompson was a pilot for Air Transport International based in Arkansas.  After returning from FMLA leave, he was discharged for violating an operational procedure.  He sued in Federal Court, alleging retaliation under the FMLA.  ATI moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Thompson’s claims were subject to a mandatory arbitration provision contained in the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between it and Thompson’s union.  The district court granted ATI’s motion, and the 8th Circuit affirmed.

Thompson argued that the mandatory arbitration provision was not enforceable because it represented an illegal waiver of his right to bring an FMLA claim.  While recognizing that an employer cannot require an employee to waive his right to seek relief under the FMLA, the court concluded that the CBA did not amount to a waiver of Thompson’s rights under the statute, only a waiver of his right to have his claims heard in court.   In so doing, the 8th Circuit reaffirmed two important legal principles:

  • Parties can waive their right to seek judicial relief as part of a mandatory arbitration agreement, and
  • Employment-related claims, like those under the FMLA, can be subject to mandatory arbitration.

The Court’s broad language in this decision will be helpful to parties seeking to enforce mandatory arbitration provisions in both CBAs and non-union arbitration agreements.  Of course, employers should not overreach and try to limit the remedies available to employees in the arbitration forum.

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