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On February 8, 2011, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit became the latest circuit court to reject the doctrine of “complete preemption” by the RLA over state law claims. Hughes v. United Air Lines, Inc., No. 10-1129 (7th Cir. Feb. 8, 2011). Complete preemption applies to those state law claims that implicate a federal statute and may be removed to federal court even if the complaint is drafted so as to avoid expressly raising any federal claims.

Hughes arose from an Illinois complaint alleging retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim in violation of Illinois law. Based on Graf v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Ry., 790 F.2d 1341 (7th Cir. 1986), which recognized RLA complete preemption, the carrier removed the case to federal court and subsequently obtained dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, expressly overturning Graf. The Court recognized that if the plaintiff’s state law claim is dependent on the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement, the claim would be preempted; however, because the court declined to apply the complete preemption doctrine, the court ruled that defense must be litigated in state courts.

Though a minority of circuits continue to recognize the vitality of RLA complete preemption, the clear trend in recent years has been to reject the doctrine. See Moore-Thomas v. Alaska Airlines, Inc., 553 F.3d 1241 (9th Cir. 2009); Roddy v. Grand Trunk W. R.R. Inc., 395 F.3d 318 (6th Cir. 2005); Sullivan v. American Airlines, Inc., 424 F.3d 267 (2d Cir. 2005); Geddes v. American Airlines, Inc., 321 F.3d 1349 (11th Cir. 2003). As the Hughes decision demonstrates, previously settled law is susceptible to being swept away by this ongoing trend in the circuit courts.