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The Illinois Supreme Court just handed union employers with broad management rights clauses in their collective bargaining agreements (CBA) a win. On March 23, 2023 the Illinois Supreme Court affirmatively answered a certified question (Does Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act preempt BIPA claims asserted by bargaining unit employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement?), and held in Walton v. Roosevelt University that Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) claims brought by employees covered by union contracts with broad management rights clauses are preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA). (We recently mentioned the Walton case in our blog, here.) Like many BIPA cases against employers, Walton alleged that former-employer Roosevelt’s collection, use, storage, and disclosure of Walton’s and similarly situated employees’ biometric data violated BIPA.

Section 301 of the LMRA

Section 301 of the LMRA preempts a state law claim, such as a BIPA claim, if resolution of the claim requires the interpretation of a CBA. Claims founded directly on rights created by the CBA as well as claims that substantially depend on analysis of the CBA are preempted, as are claims that are obvious disputes over labor contracts and ones posing as state-law claims that are deemed to actually be claims under a labor contract. In addition, where an employer advances a “nonfrivolous argument” that the conduct the individual employee complains of was authorized by the union in the management-rights clause of the CBA, the claim is deemed to require interpretation of the CBA and, therefore, is preempted.

What the Illinois Supreme Court said

In Walton, the Illinois Supreme Court aligned with federal Seventh Circuit precedent in Miller v. Southwest Airlines, 926 F.3d 898 (7th Cir. 2019) and Fernandez v. Kerry, 14 F.4th 644 (7th Cir. 2021) after finding the Seventh Circuit’s analysis in the cases was not “without logic or reason.” In Miller v. Southwest Airlines, the Seventh Circuit held that the union-represented airline workers’ BIPA claims were preempted by the federal Railway Labor Act, which contains a preemption standard virtually identical to the one in the LMRA. In Fernandez v. Kerry, the Court held that Fernandez’s BIPA claims were preempted by Section 301 of the LMRA since resolution of the claims depended on the interpretation of the CBA between Kerry and the union, requiring an arbitrator to determine whether the employer and the union bargained about the issue or the union consented on the employees’ behalf. In each of these cases, the BIPA claims had to be resolved between the union and the employer.

In Walton, the Court found that when an employer invokes a broad management rights clause from a CBA in response to a BIPA claim brought by bargaining unit employees, there is an arguable claim for preemption. Given that the CBA at issue in Walton contained a broad management rights clause, the Court answered the question in the affirmative and found Walton’s BIPA claims preempted by the LMRA.

Employer Takeaways

  • Union employers in Illinois can breathe a little easier now that the Illinois Supreme Court has followed the Seventh Circuit’s guidance on this issue. Such employers should examine their collective bargaining agreements, including management rights clauses, and other evidence to determine whether Walton can be used to prevent employees from bypassing the grievance process to assert BIPA claims directly, as many claims will be forced to arbitration, keeping them out of court.
  • Employers with unions–or who see employee unions on the horizon–should continue to negotiate the collection of biometric information and / or broad management right clauses in CBAs to guard against liability resulting from direct BIPA claims by CBA-covered employees.

As always, for assistance with your labor and employment related needs, contact your Baker McKenzie attorney.