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Plaintiffs’ Tortious Causes of Action Were Not Preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act

Smith v. Giant Food, LLC, et al.
Civil No., JKB-12-3097 (D. Md. 2013)

by Kevin M. Cox, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Sharonlee Smith (“Smith”) and her husband, Bernard Smith (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County against Giant Food, LLC (“Giant”), and two Giant employees, Mike Haines (“Haines”) and Jerry Gans (“Gans”) (collectively, “Defendants”), claiming false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), civil conspiracy, and loss of consortium. Defendants removed this action to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland on the basis of federal preemption under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947 (“LMRA”), codified at 29 U.S.C. § 185. Defendants then moved to dismiss the case, and Plaintiffs moved for remand.

Smith was an employee of Giant. She allegedly placed a pen in a Giant salad bar, and reported that it was a hypodermic syringe. Giant investigators or security personnel, Haines and Gans, as well as an assistant manager, allegedly coerced Smith into writing a confession, and admitting to her alleged actions. She was fired, but her reinstatement was negotiated by her union.

A state law cause of action may in certain circumstances be completely preempted by §301 of the LMRA. If so, then §301 provides the exclusive cause of action, and the course of the litigation is governed by § 301 and the law interpreting it. The question that the court had to decide was whether Plaintiffs’ claimed causes of action, arising under Maryland state law, were in fact preempted by §301.

Section 301 preempts any cause of action for the violation of a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Section 301’s preemptive effect also extends beyond suits alleging violation of CBAs to suits relating to labor agreement terms agreed and what legal consequences flow from breaches of that agreement, namely whether a breach raises contractual or tort claims. Thus, “when resolution of a state-law claim is substantially dependent upon analysis of the terms of an agreement made between the parties in a labor contract, that claim must either be treated as a §301 claim or dismissed as pre-empted by federal labor-contract law.” However, “§301 pre-emption merely ensures that federal law will be the basis for interpreting collective-bargaining agreements, and says nothing about the substantive rights a State may provide to workers when adjudication of those rights does not depend upon the interpretation of such agreements.”

State law claims that have no relation to a CBA—other than the fact they are asserted by an employee covered by a CBA—are not preempted by §301. Further, Section 301 “does not grant the parties to a collective-bargaining agreement the ability to contract for what is illegal under state law. In extending the pre-emptive effect of §301 beyond suits for breach of contract, it would be inconsistent with congressional intent under that section to preempt state rules that proscribe conduct, or establish rights and obligations, independent of a labor contract.” Finally, the presence of a Federal question, including a §301 question, in a defensive argument does not confer Federal jurisdiction and, consequently, does not permit preemption of a state law claim or removal of it to Federal court.

Against those broad principles, Defendants asserted that Plaintiffs’ claims of false imprisonment and IIED were “substantially dependent on the Court’s analysis of the CBA concerning Defendants’ rights, obligations, and authority to conduct an investigation into Plaintiff’s on-the-job misconduct, including the manner in which that workplace investigation took place.” Under Maryland law, the elements of false imprisonment are “‘a deprivation of the liberty of another without his consent and without legal justification.’” A claim of IIED has four elements: (1) intentional or reckless conduct that is (2) extreme and outrageous and is (3) causally connected to the emotional distress, which is (4) severe. To flesh out Defendants’ position, they implicitly and necessarily argued that whether their detention of Smith was justified and whether their conduct otherwise—as alleged by Smith, in detaining her, threatening her with felony arrest, and insisting she write and sign a confession before allowing her to leave the store other than in handcuffs—was outrageous required the court to interpret the CBA. The Court disagreed.

Whether conduct is “a matter of intrinsic moral import,” as opposed to whether the wrongfulness of conduct can only be analyzed by interpreting a CBA, appears to be the touchstone for analysis of preemption claims. This is the focus of Fourth Circuit cases involving §301 preemption claims.

Maryland law clearly reflects a public policy against physical detention of an individual without legal justification and makes the conduct a matter of intrinsic moral import. It is not even remotely possible to construe the CBA to which Smith and Giant were parties as permitting Giant to detain physically an employee against her will as an act of “investigation.” Further any claim by Giant that the CBA legitimized its detention of Smith would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s pronouncement that §301 “does not grant the parties to a collective-bargaining agreement the ability to contract for what is illegal under state law.”

The claim of IIED was premised upon the alleged false imprisonment and the alleged coercive, threatening statements by Gans and Haines during the course of the alleged imprisonment that, unless Smith confessed to what they accused her of doing, they would have her arrested on a felony charge, handcuffed, and paraded through the store in front of her coworkers. Giant did not set forth a plausible basis for arrest of Smith on a felony charge, and the Court could not imagine what felony was committed even presuming Smith put the ink pen on the salad bar. If all that had been alleged was that Giant employees met with Smith and accused her of wrongdoing, then this case may have been removable. But Smith’s allegations detailed much more than a simple meeting and accusation of wrongdoing. They recited a course of conduct that went beyond mere “investigation” and crossed over into matters of intrinsic moral import under Maryland law.

The Court concluded that neither the claim of false imprisonment nor the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was preempted by §301. Consequently, the case was remanded. Defendants’ motion to dismiss was also denied as moot, without prejudice to Defendants’ rights to raise appropriate grounds therein in the state court proceeding.