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State Wage Claims Preempted by LMRA

In this suit by employees of a Greenville, S.C., poultry processing plant, plaintiffs’ state-law wage claims are preempted by federal labor law, as the parties are subject to a collective bargaining agreement, but the 4th Circuit affirms an award for two of six employees who allege retaliation for filing state workers’ compensation claims.

The wages paid to production and maintenance employees at the plant were governed by a collective bargaining agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, Local No. 1996.

In three actions, current and former employees of the plant sued for unpaid wages in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act; and for retaliation for instituting workers’ compensation claims, in violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 41-1-80. The district court granted employer summary judgment on the FLSA claims but denied it on the state-law wage claim and the retaliation claims. The actions were consolidated and a jury returned a verdict in favor of 16 employees on the state-law wage claim, awarding plaintiffs $16,583, which the district court trebled to $49,749. The court awarded attorney’s fees and costs of $227,640. Following a bench trial on the retaliation claims, the court found in favor of eight employees, ordering reinstatement of five and awarding aggregate back pay of $131,742.

We reverse the jury award on the state-law wage claims, concluding those claims are preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, and should have been dismissed.

It is apparent that plaintiffs’ claims under the S.C. Wages Act are nothing other than a disagreement with employer’s interpretation of how to calculate their “hours worked” under the CBA, including the two unpaid breaks provided for in the CBA. The company asserts that compensable time was properly measured based on “line time,” so that employees would start being paid when the line commenced and would no longer be paid when the line stopped, either for breaks or at the end of the shift. Plaintiffs assert that compensable time was to be measured generally by when they were “on the clock” and included time in the break room after employees took off their protective gear and washed up. We conclude the dispute under state law necessarily implicates an interpretation of the CBA and the proceedings are preempted by § 301 of the LMRA.

Any entitlement plaintiffs have in this case to unpaid wages under the S.C. Wages Act must stem from the CBA that governed the terms and conditions of their employment, including their wages. Since it is undisputed that plaintiffs did not pursue the grievance and arbitration procedures provided by the CBA, these claims should have been dismissed as preempted by § 301 of the LMRA.

As to the retaliation claims, we reverse as to six employees because they failed to present evidence satisfying the governing legal standards for recovery under state law. As to the remaining two employees – Billy Harris and Lisa Jamison – we affirm.

With respect to the six employees, none actually filed a workers’ compensation claim prior to termination of their employment. The district court’s contrary conclusion applied a test that is insufficient under South Carolina law to show that workers’ compensation proceedings have been “instituted.”

The district court relied on the fact that these six employees had submitted documentation to employer to show that they had sought medical care for their injuries, but there was no indication that they were doing so in order to seek reimbursement for their medical bills. To the contrary, the evidence showed that plaintiffs provided doctors’ notes to employer in their efforts to minimize their attendance points. We conclude the district court erred in holding that these six employees had “instituted” workers’ compensation proceedings within the meaning of S.C. Code Ann. § 41-1-80. We also agree with employer that the district court erred in holding that these employees’ termination iiiresulted fromiii their institution of workers’ compensation proceedings.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

Concurrence & dissent

King, J.: I respectfully disagree with the panel majority’s decision except its affirmance of the judgments in favor of plaintiffs Billy Harris and Lisa Jamison on their workers’ compensation retaliation claims. I would fully affirm the district court. The district court correctly determined that the plaintiffs presented valid state law claims for recovery of unpaid wages. The district court was also right to rule that the unpaid wage claims were not preempted by the LMRA. As for the workers’ compensation retaliation claims, the district court properly entered judgments for eight plaintiffs.

Barton v. House of Raeford Farms Inc. (Niemeyer) No. 12-1943, March 11, 2014; USDC at Greenville, S.C. (Childs) James L. Stine for appellant; Nancy B. Bloodgood for appellees. VLW 014-2-053, 45 pp.

VLW 014-2-053

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