Jon Campisi Feb. 12, 2014, 8:28am


A lawsuit filed against Kraft Foods and Nabisco by a factory worker who

alleges she was discriminated against because of a work-related disability must play out in a Pennsylvania trial court because it raises only state-law claims, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled.

On Jan. 29, U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson, who sits in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, remanded Trina L. Palmer’s complaint to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the venue where it was originally filed.

Lawyers for Kraft Foods Global Inc. and Nabisco Inc., the two defendants in the case, had removed the litigation to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and the plaintiff subsequently filed a petition to remand the lawsuit back to Philadelphia.

While the defendants conceded that the litigation raises only state-law claims, they claimed that the plaintiff’s claims are completely preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act, records show.

Palmer, who began working as a machine operator for the Northeast Philadelphia company back in the summer of 1979, was injured when her hand was crushed while on the job in late June 2002, according to her suit.

Following the injury, Palmer informed her employer that she could no longer perform the task of “flour blowing,” a machine handler job that involves attaching a heavy hose to a machine that fills supply cars with flour, according to the complaint.

The woman says after providing the company with a doctor’s note, she was excused from the task from 2005 through 2008, but was eventually told she’d have to perform flour-blowing whenever she was the most junior material handler on a shift.

Palmer maintained that this represented a failure and refusal to accommodate her disability in violation of Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance.

In the spring of 2009, the plaintiff’s physician signed off on Palmer performing the job of material handler provided that she was afforded an accommodation for flour-blowing, the lawsuit states.

Palmer’s supervisor subsequently informed her that the company could not accommodate her for a permanent position after she had requested an accommodation on a temporary basis for the past three or four years on all shifts.

Palmer filed a civil suit against the defendants on Sept. 11, 2012.

In its removal notice, the defendants asserted that the plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act, specifically the provision dealing with collective bargaining agreements.

The plaintiff is a member of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers’ and Grain Millers International Union AFL-CIO Local 492.

The judge pointed out that Section 301 of the LMRA does not preempt state-law claims that only “tangentially relate” to the terms of a CBA.

Baylson determined that no part of Palmer’s complaint relies on a clause in the CBA, and that if the defendants wanted to overcome this obstacle, they would have to show that Palmer’s claims are either inextricably intertwined with the CBA or are substantially dependent on an analysis of the agreement.

The defendants contended that the court would have to interpret the CBA in order to evaluate their actions in relation to the plaintiff’s special accommodation requests.

Baylson wrote that the defendants asked him to hold that the CBA is inextricably intertwined with Palmer’s claims without reading “a single word of the agreement.”

“The Court simply cannot do this,” the judge wrote. “Defendant has failed to meet its burden to establish federal question jurisdiction.”

Baylson further wrote that even if the terms of the CBA were in the record, the defendants’ complete preemption argument fails on the merits.

“Defendant argues that the CBA is inextricably intertwined with Plaintiff’s claims because the Court will need to interpret the CBA ‘in order to evaluate [Defendant’s] actions in relation to … [Plaintiff’s] accommodation requests,’” the judge’s memorandum states. “That is an artful way of saying that the CBA justified Defendant’s actions – in other words, Defendant is raising the CBA as a defense. A defense that raises a federal question does not establish complete preemption.”

Baylson sent the case back to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

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