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Brindle v. Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 18, 2019

Robin Brindle et al.
v.
Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, by and through its Director, et al.

          Providence County Superior Court PC 12-3075, PC 12-3076, PC 12-3073, PC 12-3072, PC 12-3071 Associate Justice Susan E. McGuirl

          For Petitioners: Vicki J. Bejma, Esq.

          For Respondents: Ira G. Rosenstein, Pro Hac Vice William E. O'Gara, Esq. Matthew C. Reeber, Esq. Sean Fontes, Esq. Nicole M. Zito, Pro Hac Vice

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          MAUREEN MCKENNA GOLDBERG, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         These consolidated cases came before the Supreme Court on November 27, 2018. The petitioners, Robin Brindle, Kathleen Brown, Sandra Carter, Marcie LaPorte, and Kelvin Ramirez (a/k/a Kevin Ramirez) (collectively petitioners), filed petitions for writ of certiorari to this Court pursuant to the Administrative Procedures Act, G.L. 1956 § 42-35-16, seeking review of a Superior Court judgment affirming a decision of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (the DLT) that denied the petitioners' wage and hour claims against Delta Airlines, Inc. (Delta). Before this Court, the petitioners argue that the Superior Court erred in affirming the DLT's finding that G.L. 1956 § 25-3-3 is preempted by federal law, specifically, 49 U.S.C § 41713(b)(1) of the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA). For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         Between September 6, 2011, and September 13, 2011, petitioners, who were customer service agents for Delta at its facility at the T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island, filed five separate individual "nonpayment of wages" complaints with DLT. Each complaint alleged that Delta violated the provisions of § 25-3-3 by failing to pay petitioners time-and-a-half for hours worked on Sundays and holidays. Delta filed a response with DLT on November 16, 2011, arguing that the complaints should be dismissed because § 25-3-3, which mandates the payment of time-and-a-half for work performed on Sundays and holidays, is preempted by the ADA. Section 25-3-3(a) provides, in part, that:

"Work performed by employees on Sundays and holidays must be paid for at least one and one-half (11/2) times the normal rate of pay for the work performed; provided: (1) that it is not grounds for discharge or other penalty upon any employee for refusing to work upon any Sunday or holiday enumerated in this chapter[.]"

         The petitioners' complaints and Delta's letter were addressed at a hearing before a DLT hearing officer on May 8, 2012. At the hearing, the hearing officer did not take testimony or receive other evidence. Instead, the hearing officer indicated that she was "inclined to agree with" Delta that § 25-3-3 is preempted by the ADA; but she allowed petitioners to raise any arguments that their wage complaints were not preempted. The petitioners elected not to raise any argument before the hearing officer on the issue of preemption. In a written decision, [1] the hearing officer concluded that the DLT was "preempted from enforcing wage laws for airline employees" because requiring Delta to pay petitioners time-and-a-half for hours worked on Sundays and holidays relates to Delta's prices, routes, or services, which, in turn, triggers preemption in accordance with the ADA. The hearing officer declared that DLT has no authority to adjudicate the claims, and therefore dismissed all five complaints. The petitioners timely appealed to the Superior Court, in accordance with § 42-35-15.[2]

         On appeal before the Superior Court, petitioners argued that the hearing officer's decision to dismiss the complaints was affected by an error of law because the ADA does not preempt § 25-3-3. The Superior Court subsequently concluded that the hearing officer erred in dismissing petitioners' complaints because she failed to hear, review, or weigh evidence demonstrating that petitioners' wage complaints had a sufficient connection to Delta's prices, routes, or services to warrant preemption. In accordance with § 42-35-15, the Superior Court remanded the case to the DLT for a further hearing and a finding of fact on the issue of the effect of employee wages on Delta's prices, routes, and services.

         The remand hearing was conducted by the DLT on May 4, 2015, before the same hearing officer. At that hearing, Kelly Fredericks, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), testified to his experience in the aviation and transportation industry, which spanned more than thirty years. Mr. Fredericks explained that a critical component of his job at RIAC was to attract and maintain air-carrier service at T.F. Green Airport, which services eight airline carriers and approximately 10, 000 travelers per day. He testified that cost and demand, including labor costs, are factors that air carriers take into consideration when deciding whether to do business in Rhode Island. Mr. Fredericks agreed that higher labor costs in Rhode Island would make RIAC "less competitive in the market for air services" and therefore that a statute that requires Sunday and holiday premium pay could have a significant negative impact on air carriers conducting business in Rhode Island; could alter flights into and out of the airport; or could affect the number of employees scheduled for Sundays or holidays.

         Sandra LaPlante, the station manager for Delta at T.F. Green Airport, testified next that she had worked for Delta for twenty years and that her duties include oversight of Delta's day-today operations, including managing and scheduling a team of twenty-five customer service agents and ensuring that Delta's T.F. Green location is sufficiently staffed for operations. Ms. LaPlante testified that service on Sundays and holidays is important to Delta, as its T.F. Green Airport location operates seven days per week. She next explained that, if Delta were forced to pay Sunday premium time to its Rhode Island workers, it could affect the customer service that is provided at T.F. Green Airport and cause Delta to modify the services that it provides on those particular days because it could lead to a reduction of staff.

         After considering the testimony and weighing the credibility of the witnesses, the hearing officer, for the second time, concluded that petitioners' wage claims were preempted by the ADA, and she dismissed the complaints. In a written decision, the hearing officer found that Ms. LaPlante's testimony was persuasive because of her twenty years with Delta, in various positions, including station manager charged with overseeing customer service. In reaching her conclusion, the hearing officer pointed to Ms. LaPlante's testimony that an increase in employees' wages would affect Delta's services. The hearing officer also found that, although not specific to Delta, the testimony of Mr. Fredericks about the factors that an air carrier considers when determining whether to locate or remain at a particular airport applied to air carriers such as Delta and was supported by the testimony of Ms. LaPlante. Therefore, because the testimony demonstrated "that ...


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