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BLET General Committee of Adjustment BNSF v. BNSF Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

June 6, 2018



          Michael E. Hegarty, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiffs are three collective bargaining representatives for employees of Defendant BNSF Railway Company. Plaintiffs brought this action as a result of Defendant's consolidation of collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) during the implementation of new interdivisional rail service (“ID service”). In the present motion, Plaintiffs seek a status quo injunction requiring Defendant to operate under the CBAs previously in effect while the parties engage in the Railway Labor Act's (“RLA”) arbitration process. According to Plaintiffs, I have jurisdiction to enter such an injunction, because this a “major dispute” under the RLA. In a separate motion, Defendant seeks to dismiss this case, because it involves only a “minor dispute.” I hold that the present dispute is minor under the RLA. Defendant's actions were arguably justified by the terms of the 1986 National Agreement the parties entered into, which Plaintiffs do not dispute is part of the parties' CBAs. Accordingly, I grant Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, and I deny Plaintiffs' Motion for a Status Quo Injunction.


         Defendant is comprised of several former railroads that the Interstate Commerce Commission consolidated in 1996. Am. Compl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 11. Plaintiffs negotiate and administer CBAs with Defendant. Id. ¶ 4. Some of the CBAs and other labor agreements pertain to all of Defendant's employees, and others apply only on certain railroads. Id. ¶ 6.

         In June 2017 Defendant notified Plaintiffs that it planned to establish ID service to operate rail lines between new locations. Id. ¶ 7. Defendant stated it was instituting this service pursuant to Article IX of the National Agreement, and that such service would be subject to the Colorado and Southern Railway (“C&S”) CBA, regardless of whether the employees were previously governed by that agreement. Id.; ECF No. 20-3.[1] The National Agreement permits Defendant to serve a written notice proposing the conditions for new ID service. ECF No. 20-2. The service then operates on a trial basis until the parties complete arbitration. Id.

         Plaintiffs subsequently informed Defendant that it could not replace the existing CBAs without obtaining their agreement. Id. ¶ 8. Although the parties engaged in negotiations, they did not resolve the dispute. Id. ¶ 9. In January 2018 Defendant unilaterally implemented the ID service on a trial basis and required all new railway lines to operate under the C&S CBA. Id. ¶ 10; Decl. of Milton H. Siegele ¶ 15, ECF No. 20-1. This allegedly caused many of Defendant's employees to undergo lower wage rates, loss of their profit-sharing plan, loss of their 401(k) employer match, changes in layover time and pay, and changes in job assignments and work schedules. Am. Compl. ¶ 10.

         As a result, Plaintiffs filed suit on March 19, 2018. Compl., ECF No. 1. In their Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert Defendant violated the RLA's “major dispute provisions” by making changes to rates of pay and working conditions without performing the required procedures. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23-27. Additionally, Plaintiffs allege Defendant violated various labor agreements between the parties, including the New York Dock conditions, the Cramdown Agreement, and the North Loop Agreement. Id. ¶¶ 13-21. Generally, these agreements require Defendant to follow certain procedures when modifying CBAs. Id.

         On March 27, 2018, Plaintiffs filed the present Motion for a Status Quo Injunction, ECF No. 16. Plaintiffs seek to restore the CBAs previously in effect at least until the parties complete the formal arbitration process. Id. According to Plaintiffs, an injunction is proper, because Defendant's authority to unilaterally change the CBAs is a major dispute under the RLA. Id. at 3-8.

         On April 17, 2018, Defendant responded to Plaintiffs' motion and contemporaneously filed the present Motion to Dismiss. Resp. to Mot. for Injunction, ECF No. 21; Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 19. Defendant's response and motion argue that I lack subject matter jurisdiction to decide this case, because it involves only a minor dispute. Resp. to Mot. for Injunction 4-7; Mot. to Dismiss 12-19. According to Defendant, the plain language of the National Agreement arguably permits it to unilaterally determine working conditions on a trial basis when establishing ID service. Mot. to Dismiss 12-14. Additionally, Defendant relies on the parties' past practices and relevant arbitration awards as support for its authority to make the disputed changes. Id. at 14-16.

         On May 11, 2018, Plaintiffs filed a reply in support of their request for an injunction and a response to Defendant's motion. Reply in Supp. of Mot. for Injunction, ECF No. 27; Resp. to. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 28. Plaintiffs primarily rely on a recent arbitration award, which held that the National Agreement does not permit a different carrier to unilaterally change existing CBAs. Resp. to Mot. to Dismiss 5-8. According to Plaintiffs, this arbitration award “expose[s] [Defendant's] position as ‘frivolous or obviously insubstantial' . . . .” Id. Defendant filed a Reply in Support of its Motion to Dismiss on May 25, 2018, ECF No. 29.


         The parties' motions seek resolution of same question-is Defendant's authority to use the C&S CBA for its consolidated rail lines a major or minor dispute? If the dispute is major, I have jurisdiction to require Defendant to use the prior CBAs until the parties complete the “lengthy process of bargaining and mediation” the RLA requires. Consol. Rail Corp. v. Ry. Labor Execs.' Ass'n (Conrail), 491 U.S. 299, 302-03 (1989). If this is a minor dispute, I lack jurisdiction over it, and the issue must be determined by the National Railroad Adjustment Board (“NRAB”). Id. at 304 (“The Board (as we shall refer to any adjustment board under the RLA) has exclusive jurisdiction over minor disputes.”). I find that this case involves a minor dispute.

         In determining whether disputes are major or minor, courts look to whether the carrier seeks to create contractual rights or merely enforce them. Id. at 302. Major disputes relate to “the formation of collective bargaining agreements or efforts to secure them.” Id. (quoting Elgin, J. & E.R. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 723 (1945)). In contrast, minor disputes involve “controversies over the meaning of an existing collective bargaining agreement in a particular fact situation.” Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Norris, 512 U.S. 246, 253 (1994) (quoting Bhd. of R.R. Trainmen v. Chi. River & Ind. R.R. Co., 353 U.S. 30, 33 (1957)). The “distinguishing feature of [a minor dispute] is that the dispute may be conclusively resolved by interpreting the existing agreement.” Conrail, 491 U.S. at 305.

         A carrier “bears a ‘relatively light burden' in establishing exclusive jurisdiction in the Adjustment Board under the RLA.” Bhd. of Maint. of Way Emps. Div. v. Burlington N. Santa FeRy. Co., 596 F.3d 1217, 1223 (10th Cir. 2010) (quoting Conrail, 491 U.S. at 307)). In fact, “a party need only show that the contested action is ‘arguably justified' by the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.” Id. (quoting Conrail, 491 U.S. at 304-05). An action is arguably justified by the CBA “if ...

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