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Amtrak employee’s Title VII claims must be arbitrated

Where an Amtrak employee alleged that she was subjected to discrimination made unlawful under Title VII, but her claims necessitated the “interpretation or application” of a collective bargaining agreement, they were subject to arbitration under the Railway Labor Act.


Congress enacted the Railway Labor Act, or RLA, to curb disruption of the rail yards, tracks and terminals that tie the economy together. As relevant here, the statute directs workers and carriers to resolve their differences through mediation and arbitration. But Dawn Polk, a rail worker, elected to sue her employer, Amtrak, in federal court. The district court, however, held that Polk’s claims were subject to arbitration under the RLA and dismissed the lawsuit.

Categorical argument

The RLA sets forth a detailed dispute-resolution procedure, culminating in arbitration, for conflicts “growing out of … the interpretation or application” of a collective bargaining agreement. Such conflicts are known as “minor disputes.” The Supreme Court has held that the RLA’s arbitral procedure for minor disputes is “mandatory.”

Polk first argument is categorical. She contends that all Title VII claims are intrinsically different from RLA minor disputes because Title VII “rights are guaranteed to employees whether or not a collective bargaining agreement exists.” Polk’s proposition that a Title VII claim cannot be a minor dispute, however, runs headlong into Supreme Court guidance, circuit court precedent and the congressional judgments behind the RLA. While Polk is entitled to seek a remedy for workplace discrimination, the RLA accords her the avenue for such relief in arbitration.

Polk protests that arbitration would render her Title VII rights “ineffective.” But arbitration is no death knell. In extending an arbitral forum, the RLA serves not to deny Polk due process but to afford it. Polk’s skepticism of arbitration is, in any event, out of step with the views of Congress and the Supreme Court. The value of arbitration does not vanish simply because Polk raises a workplace discrimination claim.

While arbitration does not compromise Title VII protections, Polk’s proposed rule would scuttle the RLA’s continued operation. Any dispute about a disciplinary action can be reframed through artful pleading as a discrimination claim under Title VII. Thus, if Title VII claims are never minor disputes, workers will be able to “cavalierly bypass” the regular grievance process and arbitration and head straight to federal court merely by adding allegations of discrimination to a complaint.

The less disruptive alternative is for claims like Polk’s to go to arbitration. Polk has already taken the first step by filing a grievance with Amtrak’s dispute resolution office. She can ultimately make her case to an adjustment board, half composed of union representatives. In addition, Amtrak has represented that Polk can raise her Title VII claim and obtain Title VII relief in the arbitral forum.

Particular argument

Polk also argues that at least her particular claim is not a minor dispute. As noted above, minor disputes “grow[] out of … the interpretation or application” of a Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA. Polk contends that her claim is not a minor dispute because the claim is limited to “Amtrak’s discriminatory behavior and not the collective bargaining agreement itself.”

This court disagrees. The thrust of Polk’s Title VII claim is that Amtrak deviated from its policies when dealing with her. While Polk’s allegations as to her own treatment are factual, those concerning Amtrak’s policies directly implicate the relevant CBA between Polk’s union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union and Amtrak. That some of Polk’s interpretive disagreements concern the Drug-Free Program does not alter the character of her claim because the program is itself integrated with the CBA. Since Polk’s Title VII claim requires the interpretation of a CBA, it is a minor dispute.

That is, Polk relies on her interpretation of these provisions as a stand-in for allegations about Amtrak’s factual treatment of her similarly situated colleagues. She chiefly alleges that Amtrak broke its own rules when it (1) terminated her for failing to complete the initial drug test and then (2) tested her “excessively” beyond the one-year period specified in the waiver. Yet even assuming that these allegations could establish the element of differential treatment in a Title VII claim, they would still necessitate the “interpretation or application” of a CBA.


Polk v. Amtrak National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Case No. 22-1912, April 26, 2023. 4th Cir. (Wilkinson), from DMD at Baltimore (Griggsby). Denise M. Clark for Appellant. Alison Nadine Davis for Appellees. VLW 023-2-118. 16 pp.