BNSF Railway v. Buttrick (CA1 12/29/11)

This discovery dispute involves the extent of a trial court’s jurisdiction over a related administrative proceeding.

The plaintiff, Crain (Buttrick is John Buttrick, the Maricopa County judge; this is a special action), was a railroad employee injured on the job. He sued the railroad under the FELA. His union’s collective bargaining agreement with BNSF requires injured employees to submit certain medical notices regularly. After he filed suit Crain stopped doing so. BNSF scheduled an administrative hearing into this “misconduct” by its employee, under procedures authorized by federal railway-labor law and the contract. Crain countered with a motion for protective order asking the court to rule that BNSF couldn’t require the notices or discipline him for not submitting them. The trial court ruled that he didn’t have to submit them but could be disciplined if he didn’t participate in the hearing. He didn’t; BNSF fired him and filed this special action.

The Court of Appeals holds that the administrative proceedings, “which are conducted under the auspices of the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 151-164, fall outside the scope of actions that the superior court is granted jurisdiction to entertain.”

The parties apparently argued the case on the basis that the Act either did or didn’t preempt State authority. The Court of Appeals says that preemption is not the issue because all that’s in the state court is a personal-injury case, not the regulated employment matters. “The pertinent question, therefore, is not what the court can and cannot do under the Railway Labor Act, but whether the trial court’s jurisdiction extends to the conduct of an independent proceeding with a dignity of its own.” The answer is no, the court can’t interfere with the administrative proceedings any more than the administrative hearing officer could interfere with the court case. “Although Arizona courts have broad powers, both express and inherent, to control the course of their own proceedings, those powers do not create jurisdiction to control independent proceedings conducted under the authority of a separate sovereign.”

Along the way the court says that Crain had produced all “necessary documents” required by the Rules of Civil Procedure but that BNSF’s insistence on contractual notices was not a “mere pretext” for getting more because it needed information regarding possible accommodations for Crain’s alleged disabilities. The court did this as a further, and unnecessary, way to distinguish one of Crain’s cases. The impulse is one we see from time to time: to insist that justice, not merely law, is on your side. (That the two must be the same – and that if they are not then we might as well retire all the judges and go back to being ruled by tribal elders – is a point sometimes elusive.) But the court makes clear that its holding is based on law, not facts. If a court doesn’t have jurisdiction then logically it would seem to be for the administrative proceeding to decide whether a contractual request is proper.

(link to opinion)