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Swinford v. Russ Dunmire Oldsmobile Inc.

filed: June 28, 1996.

JOHN SWINFORD, APPELLANT/CROSS-RESPONDENT,
v.
RUSS DUNMIRE OLDSMOBILE, INC., A WASHINGTON CORPORATION, RESPONDENT/CROSS-APPELLANT.



Superior Court of Pierce County. Superior Court Docket No. 92-2-06508-3. Date Filed In Superior Court: January 17, 1994. Superior Court Judge Signing: Frederick Hayes.

Written By: Turner, J., Concurred IN By: Morgan, J., Bridgewater, J.

Author: Turner

TURNER, J. -- Swinford sued his employer, Russ Dunmire Oldsmobile, Inc., for unlawful termination, alleging handicap discrimination and breach of contract based on an employee handbook. Russ Dunmire answered, claiming that Swinford's breach of contract claim was preempted by federal labor law because his job position was governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The trial court directed a verdict in favor of Russ Dunmire on Swinford's handicap discrimination claim, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Russ Dunmire on the other claims. Swinford appeals the directed verdict that was granted against his handicap discrimination claim. Russ Dunmire appeals the denial of its directed verdict motion on the breach of contract claim. We hold that federal law preempts Swinford's state law breach of contract claim because it requires interpretation of the CBA. Accordingly, Russ Dunmire's directed verdict motion should have been granted. Because the jury rendered a verdict for Russ Dunmire on this claim, we affirm the judgment of dismissal. Additionally, we affirm the directed verdict in favor of Russ Dunmire on Swinford's handicap discrimination claim because Swinford failed to establish he was handicapped.

FACTS

John Swinford was in Russ Dunmire Oldsmobile's (Russ Dunmire) employ for over five years. Swinford was a member of the International Association of Machinists, Local 1152. During Swinford's employment with Russ Dunmire, and at the time of his termination, there was a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the dealership and the union. Under the terms of the CBA, Swinford could be discharged for "just cause."

In February 1990, Russ Dunmire issued an "Employee Handbook" to its employees. The employees were requested to sign an acknowledgment of receipt of the handbook. The acknowledgment provided that the handbook was not a set of promises or an employment contract; it did not alter the "at will" employment arrangement; and employer representations would not supersede the acknowledgment. Swinford and other union employees refused to sign the acknowledgment because its "at will" language conflicted with the "just cause" provisions in the CBA. Instead, Swinford and other union employees circled and signed only the portion of the acknowledgment that stated they received the handbook.

In July 1990, Swinford had a motorcycle accident that rendered him temporarily unable to work. He met with Ben Lewis, his supervisor, to discuss the implications for his job. Swinford and Lewis reviewed the leave of absence provisions in the employee handbook. The handbook included a provision on "Leaves of Absence," a right not provided in the CBA. The handbook provided, in part, that "employees granted a leave of absence will retain their Company service rights for a period of 3 months while on leave." Lewis later discussed Swinford's situation with the owner, Roger Dunmire, who then consulted a labor management consultant. The consultant drafted a letter to Swinford, which was signed by Lewis. The letter said:

The purpose of this letter is to acknowledge the fact that you are on a medical leave effective July 16, 1990. We agree to grant such a leave as long as you report back to work no later than October 16, 1990. This is consistent with our employee handbook that you received. You will be required to present a doctors [sic] certificate confirming your ability to work and, if any, the limitations that may apply to your returning to the same type of work. . . .

During Swinford's absence, Russ Dunmire hired a temporary replacement for Swinford.

In late August 1990, Swinford's physician said he could return to work on September 29, 1990. Swinford relayed this information to Lewis. Nevertheless, on September 14, 1990, Lewis told Swinford that his employment with Russ Dunmire had been terminated. In a letter to Swinford, Lewis said the termination was "based on our locating a replacement employee for your position that better met our company's productivity standards than you ever demonstrated in your employment with our company."

Swinford sued Russ Dunmire, alleging breach of contract, handicap discrimination, and unlawful termination. Russ Dunmire answered that the breach of contract claim was preempted by federal law. The court granted Russ Dunmire's motion for a directed verdict on the handicap discrimination claim. The jury returned a special verdict in favor of Russ Dunmire on the remaining claims. Swinford alleges that the trial court erred in instructing the jury, in directing a verdict on his handicap discrimination claim, and by denying his motion for a new trial. Russ Dunmire cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss Swinford's breach of contract claim on the ground that it was preempted by federal law.

ANALYSIS

1. Breach of Contract Claim

Russ Dunmire contends that the trial court erred in denying its motions for summary judgment*fn1 and a directed verdict on the ground that the breach of contract ...


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