AGE DISCRIMINATION / RETALIATION
Court Finds That NLRA Does Not Preempt Boarding School Employee's State Law Claims Against School, Thereby Allowing Employee To Move Forward With Lawsuit.
Copper Canyon Academy, LLC operates a boarding school for teenage girls with drug, alcohol and other behavioral problems. Mary Lombardi worked as a residential coach in the Juniper House dormitory and provided treatment to the students. On June 4, 2008, Lombardi presented the Academy's executive director, Paul Taylor, with a letter signed by Lombardi and other employees accusing the Academy of violating the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") regarding her supervisor, Jerry Dorrington, and his use of FMLA leave.
The letter also complained about the Academy's decision to replace Dorrington, who was over 40 years old, with an inexperienced 23-year old to act as Lombardi's supervisor. Taylor refused to comment on the letter immediately. Lombardi then sent a second letter to CRC Health Group, of which the Academy was a legal subsidy, making the same complaints. Neither CRC nor the Academy made any changes in personnel.
Lombardi alleged that after she sent these letters, she was subjected to increased scrutiny and harassment, including closely monitoring her, reporting false job performance corrective action complaints, defaming her, and imposing unfair schedule assignments. Lombardi further alleged that the Academy's program director,
Josh White, stated that Lombardi was "getting up there."
On September 30, 2008, Lombardi wrote a third letter to White and Anne Harmes, the supervisor of Juniper House, complaining that management was following a plan to force her to resign because she authored letters to management in June. On November 5, 2008, Lombardi was transferred from Juniper House to Willow House, which required the use of a staircase for access. Lombardi complained that the transfer to Willow House was designed to make her workplace unpleasant because White
and Taylor knew she had blood flow problems in her legs and joint arthritis. On December 18, 2008, the Academy terminated Lombardi as part of a reduction in force.
Lombardi sued the Academy for 12 separate causes of action. The Academy filed a motion to dismiss six of Lombardi's causes of action, namely wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional interference with contractual relations, breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The Academy first argued that the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") preempted Lombardi's wrongful discharge, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, breach of contract, and intentional interference with contractual relations causes of action. The Court recognized that the NLRA does preempt any claim for relief based on conduct that is prohibited by the Act's provisions. The NLRA protects employees who engage in concerted activities for the purpose of "mutual aid or protection." The court thus had to determine whether Lombardi engaged in concerted activity for the mutual aid or protection of others and whether that is what resulted in her termination.
The Court found that Lombardi did not allege that the Academy terminated her because she and her co-workers collectively complained about alleged misconduct in the workplace. Instead, Lombardi alleged that she, individually, was terminated because she opposed FMLA violations and age discrimination. The Court determined that Lombardi's complaints were not based in labor disputes, but in her rights as an individual. Moreover, the Court, citing to prior caselaw from the U.S. Supreme Court, stated that NLRA preemption does not preempt state law claims if the claims affect union and non-union employees equally and neither encourages nor discourages the collective bargaining process.
As such, the Court denied the Academy's motion to dismiss on the ground that the NLRA preempted Lombardi's claims. The Court then continued to analyze Lombardi's remaining state law claims and determined that Lombardi had alleged enough facts to assert her claims and denied the Academy's motion in full, thus allowing Lombardi's case to move forward.
Lombardi v. Copper Canyon Academy, LLC (2010) Slip Copy, 2010 WL 3775408.
The National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") is a federal law that is codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 151-169. It was enacted in 1935 and govens the manner with which employers may react to private sector workers who create labor unions, engage in collective bargaining and take part in concerted activities.