ERISA-Fifth Circuit Upholds Dismissal Of Former Pilot’s ERISA Claims For Lack Of Subject Matter Jurisdiction

In Bowcock v. Continental Airlines, Inc., No. 10-20856 (Fifth Circuit 2011), the plaintiff, a former pilot for defendant Continental Airlines, Inc. (“Continental”), had sued Continental under ERISA. The plaintiff claimed that Continental had breached its fiduciary duty under ERISA to provide truthful and complete information in response to his question about an employee benefit plan. This obtained, the plaintiff alleged, because Continental had wrongly advised him that he could not retire under an early retirement window offered by Continental unless he gave up certain pension claims. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under ERISA, and the plaintiff appealed. Was the district court right?

In analyzing the case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that the Railroad Labor Act (“RLA”), 45 U.S.C. §§ 151-88, vested exclusive jurisdiction over “minor disputes” brought by airline employees with regional adjustment boards. Consequently, if the plaintiff is an “employee” with a “minor dispute”, the plaintiff’s claim was subject to mandatory arbitration under the RLA , and the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over that claim under ERISA . The Court ruled that the plaintiff is an “employee” for this purpose, even though he had retired before filing suit. Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Pennsylvania Railroad Co. v. Day, 360 U.S. 548 (1959), the Court held that a retired employee, whose claim arose while he was in the service of the carrier, is an employee under the RLA. The Court implicitly held that the plaintiff is involved in a “minor dispute.” As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision.

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