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The full case caption appears at the end of this opinion. On March 4, 1998,Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter RailroadCorporation (d/b/a “Metra”) filed a complaint fordeclaratory and injunctive relief against DouglasBaethke and the law firm Hoey Farina & Downes(“Hoey”) in the United States District Court forthe Northern District of Illinois. Metra allegedthat the defendants were interfering with Metra’srights, guaranteed under the federal RailwayLabor Act (“RLA”), 45 U.S.C. sec. 151 et seq., toconduct disciplinary hearings according to theterms of a collective bargaining agreement. Thedistrict court dismissed for lack of subjectmatter jurisdiction. For the reasons statedherein, we affirm. Background Metra is a corporation that operates commuterpassenger trains in the Chicago region, and it isa “carrier” within the meaning of the RLA, whichgoverns labor relations matters within the railindustry. Douglas Baethke was employed by Metraas a locomotive engineer. His employment wasgoverned by a collective bargaining agreement(“CBA”) between Metra and the Brotherhood ofLocomotive Engineers (“BLE”), his bargainingrepresentative, as well as by the provisions ofthe RLA. Under the CBA, Metra may only disciplinea covered employee after first conducting a fairand impartial disciplinary investigation hearing,at which the employee may be represented by a BLEofficial, but not by a private attorney. On May 2, 1996, Baethke allegedly suffered aninjury to his leg during the course of hisemployment, and he was off work until July 21,1997, and then from October 9, 1997 through thedate at which Metra’s initial complaint wasfiled. Baethke retained the Hoey law firm torepresent him in his personal injury suit againstMetra. Baethke repeatedly told Metrarepresentatives that his injury rendered himunable to return to work, but on December 4,1997, he was observed engaging in strenuousphysical activities. On January 28, 1998, Metraofficials sent Baethke a letter informing himthat he was medically released to return to workas of January 26, but that he was removed fromservice pending an investigation hearing, to beconducted under the procedures established in theMetra-BLE CBA, concerning his possible violationof Metra work rules. Baethke informed Hoey of the disciplinaryinvestigation hearing, then scheduled forFebruary 13, 1998, and on February 5 a Hoeyattorney sent Metra a letter threatening to filesuit, in the law firm’s own name, against Metraif Metra did not agree to grant Baethke certainrights beyond those provided by the CBA.Specifically, the attorney demanded that he bepermitted to attend the hearing, that he be ableto cross-examine company witnesses, that hereceive copies of all relevant medical documents,and that the hearing be postponed to allow himtime to assemble his own evidence. The Hoeyattorney conceded that the CBA did not permitBaethke any of these rights but he insisted thatif Metra adhered to the CBA’s terms Metra wouldbe tortiously interfering with the attorney’srelationship with Baethke. [FOOTNOTE 1] The Hoey attorneythreatened to sue for injunctive relief, andMetra responded with a letter stating that Metrawould not grant Baethke the additional rightsdemanded by the Hoey attorney. The Hoey attorneythen sent Metra another letter threatening to sueif Metra continued to refuse. On March 4, 1998, Metra filed a complaint infederal district court for declaratory andinjunctive relief against Baethke and Hoey. TheRLA prescribes mandatory procedures that must befollowed with respect to certain types ofemployment disputes. Metra asserted that Baethkeand Hoey understood that any direct assertion byBaethke or Hoey that Metra’s decision to hold thedisciplinary hearing would violate Baethke’srights would be subject to the exclusive disputeresolution procedures prescribed by the RLA,under which Metra would be entitled to proceedwith the hearing pending resolution of thedispute over the application of the CBA.Therefore, Metra alleged, Baethke and Hoeyconcocted a scheme to prevent Metra’s holding ofthe disciplinary hearing by demanding termsdifferent from those prescribed by the CBA andthe RLA based on the law firm’s supposed rightsunder Illinois law. Hoey’s warnings that Metra’sexercise of the railroad’s RLA-based rights wouldtortiously interfere with the law firm’s rights,Metra claimed, was part of Hoey and Baethke’sscheme to obtain for Baethke different terms thanthose prescribed by the CBA Metra requested declaratory and injunctiverelief against both Baethke and Hoey to preventthem from interfering with Metra’s right toconduct the Baethke disciplinary hearing and anyfuture disciplinary hearings pursuant to theprovisions of its CBA and the RLA. Metra soughtdeclarations that it enjoyed the legallyprotected right to conduct the Baethkedisciplinary hearing and future disciplinaryhearings involving Hoey clients according toterms of the CBA and that this right, as a matterof federal law, supersedes any legally cognizablerights that the firm may have. Metra also soughtdeclarations that Hoey could not enjoin suchhearings because Metra’s conduct either did notviolate any legally cognizable rights belongingto Hoey or was privileged as a matter of Illinoiscommon law. Finally, Metra sought injunctiverelief preventing Hoey from interfering withMetra’s federally protected rights, such as bycommencing a lawsuit to prevent Metra fromconducting its hearings. On March 5, 1998, one day after Metra filed itscomplaint, Hoey carried out its threat and fileda lawsuit against Metra in the Circuit Court ofCook County, Illinois, alleging that Metra’sconduct of the Baethke disciplinary proceedingunder the procedures prescribed in the CBA wouldtortiously interfere with the law firm’srelationship with its client. Metra responded byfiling a motion to dismiss Hoey’s state lawsuiton the ground that it was barred by the pendencyof Metra’s earlier-filed federal action. In response to Metra’s federal lawsuit and itsmotion to dismiss Hoey’s later-filed state courtsuit, Hoey sent a letter to Metra stating that itwas withdrawing its demand to be present at thepending investigation of Baethke or to assert anyother rights the law firm might have under statelaw to enjoin the investigation. The letterconcluded: “I trust this renders all issues inthe above-referenced matters moot and both casescan be dismissed.” Hoey then voluntarilydismissed its lawsuit in state court, and onMarch 24, 1998, it moved to dismiss on mootnessgrounds the present, federal action on behalfitself and Baethke. On June 2, the district court granted themotion to dismiss Metra’s claims against Baethkeand Metra’s claims against Hoey that relatedspecifically to the Baethke hearing. The courtdenied Hoey’s motion to dismiss Metra’s claimseeking relief to prevent Hoey from commencingfuture lawsuits to interfere with Metra’sfederally protected rights, the court havingconcluded that these claims were not moot becausethere exists a present threat that Hoey, whichrepresents other Metra employees, might disruptfuture proceedings. In November 1998, Metra filed a motion forsummary judgment with respect to its claims fordeclaratory relief only, asserting that it wasentitled as a matter of law to such relief. Hoeyargued that the district court lacked subjectmatter jurisdiction because Metra’s claims fordeclaratory and injunctive relief did not “ariseunder” federal law, since Metra’s RLA-basedpreemption claims were ones that the railroadcould raise as a defense in the type of statecourt tortious interference suit threatenedagainst it by the law firm. On February 12, 1999, the district courtdismissed Metra’s claims against Hoey for lack ofsubject matter jurisdiction, and Metra nowappeals that dismissal. Discussion District courts “shall have originaljurisdiction of all civil actions arising underthe Constitution, laws, or treaties of the UnitedStates.” 28 U.S.C. sec. 1331. Under the well-pleaded complaint rule, it must be clear from theface of the plaintiff’s complaint that there isa federal question. Louisville & NashvilleRailroad Co. v. Mottley, 211 U.S. 149 (1908);Burda v. M. Ecker Co., 954 F.2d 434, 438 (7thCir. 1992). But, “[i]n declaratory judgmentcases, the well-pleaded complaint rule dictatesthat jurisdiction is determined by whetherfederal jurisdiction would exist over thepresumed suit by the declaratory judgmentdefendant.” GNB Battery Technologies, Inc. v.Gould, Inc., 65 F.3d 615, 619 (7th Cir. 1995). Inother words, as the Supreme Court explained inSkelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339U.S. 667 (1950), if the plaintiff cannot get intofederal court by anticipating what amounts to afederal defense to a state-law cause of action,he also should not be able to use the DeclaratoryJudgment Act to do so by asserting what is reallya preemptive federal defense as the basis of hiscomplaint. See also Ceres Terminals, Inc. v.Industrial Commission of Illinois, 53 F.3d 183,185 (7th Cir. 1995). In Public Services Commission of Utah v. WycoffCo., 344 U.S. 237 (1952), the Supreme Courtreiterated the position taken in Skelly Oil:”Where the complaint in an action for declaratoryjudgment seeks in essence to assert a defense toan impending or threatened state court action, itis the character of the threatened action, andnot of the defense, which will determine whetherthere is federal question jurisdiction in theDistrict Court.” Id. at 248 (emphasis added).Then, in Franchise Tax Board v. ConstructionLaborers Vacation Trust, 463 U.S. 1 (1983), theCourt made clear the strictness of the rule that”if, but for the availability of the declaratoryjudgment procedure, the federal claim would ariseonly as a defense to a state created action,jurisdiction is lacking.” Id. at 16 (citingSkelly Oil and quoting 10A C. Wright, A. Miller& M. Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure sec.2767). Based on the line of precedent running throughSkelly Oil, Wycoff, and Franchise Tax Board, thedistrict court in this case lacked jurisdictionto hear Metra’s claim. Metra argues that thedistrict court had jurisdiction over its claimfor a declaration that the RLA preempts any statelaw claim that Hoey might have for allegedtortious interference because Metra’s claimarises under the RLA and the Supremacy Clause ofthe Constitution. Metra characterizes its claimsas an attempt to protect its rights under federallaw to discipline employees for workplacemisconduct in accordance with the proceduresprescribed in certain collective bargainingagreements. But these Supreme Court casesestablish that a conflict between federal law andstate law is not enough to confer subject matterjurisdiction. In essence Metra went to districtcourt seeking adjudication of its argument thatthe RLA provides a federal law defense to thetype of state law tortious interference suit Hoeythreatened to bring. The precedent just outlined,however, precludes Metra from recharacterizingthe claim to fit the well-pleaded complaint ruleby means of the Declaratory Judgment Act. SeeCeres Terminals, 53 F.3d at 184-85 (holding thata district court lacked jurisdiction overdeclaratory judgment actions filed by stevedorecontractors, where the contractors sought adeclaration that the state’s power ends at thewater’s edge, therefore barring threatened stateworkers’ compensation claims by two workers);Nuclear Engineering Co. v. Scott, 660 F.2d 241,253 (1981) (“It is well-settled that theDeclaratory Judgment Act confers no additionaljurisdiction upon the federal courts. When adeclaratory judgment plaintiff asserts a claimthat is in the nature of a defense to athreatened or pending coercive action, thecharacter of the threatened or pending coerciveaction determines whether federal questionjurisdiction exists over the declaratory judgmentaction.”) (citations omitted). Metra does not dispute the applicability of thedirectives spelled out in Wycoff and FranchiseTax Board to its claim. Instead of arguing thatits claim lies outside the jurisdictional linesthat the language of Wycoff draws, Metra arguesthat the Wycoff approach has been renounced orlimited by subsequent Supreme Court and SeventhCircuit decisions. Specifically, Metra arguesthat federal question jurisdiction must existover claims that a threatened action based uponstate law would violate the declaratoryplaintiff’s federal rights because to holdotherwise would conflict with Ex parte Young, 209U.S. 123 (1908), and its progeny, which establishthat federal courts have subject matterjurisdiction over suits to enjoin stateinterference with a plaintiff’s federal rights.In Illinois v. General Electric Co., 683 F.2d 206(7th Cir. 1982), this Court considered whetherfederal question jurisdiction over a claim fordeclaratory relief must be assessed by referenceto the “character” of the cause of actionthreatened by the declaratory defendant ratherthan the nature of the claims actually pleaded bythe declaratory plaintiff. In that case, therecently enacted Illinois Spent Fuel Actprohibited actions that General Electric believedit was entitled to take under federal law.General Electric filed suit in federal districtcourt seeking a declaration that the Act violatedthe Commerce and Supremacy Clauses of the U.S.Constitution. This Court ultimately ruled thatthe district court had subject matterjurisdiction over General Electric’s declaratoryclaim. In doing so, we noted that the “character”of the claim rule spelled out in Wycoff, “ifunderstood to require federal claimants always tolitigate their claims as defenses in state courtif they can, . . . must be wrong. . . . Since theimpending state action will almost always bebased on state law alone, the dictum [of Wycoff],read broadly, would overrule Ex Parte Young andevery case that has ever followed it.” Id. at211. But General Electric involved a challenge tothreatened state regulation, not private actionsunder state law, and to extend the observationsof that case to cover declaratory actions likeMetra’s ignores the unique doctrinal concernsunderlying Ex parte Young. Ex parte Young carvesout an exception to the otherwise strictapplication of Eleventh Amendment immunity, toensure state compliance with federal law. “Exparte Young was the culmination of efforts by[the Supreme Court] to harmonize the principlesof the Eleventh Amendment with the effectivesupremacy of rights and powers secured elsewherein the Constitution.” Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S.82, 106 (1971) (Brennan, J., concurring in partand dissenting in part). With respect to suitschallenging threatened state-law actions byprivate parties, however, even though theprocedural posture may resemble that of an Exparte Young suit challenging threatened stateregulation, federal courts have continued toapply the well-pleaded complaint rule and othertraditional jurisdictional principles outlinedabove. See, e.g., Ceres, 53 F.3d at 185; see alsoColonial Penn Group, Inc. v. Colonial DepositCo., 834 F.2d 229, 237 (1st Cir. 1987); Armstrongv. Armstrong, 696 F.2d 1237 (9th Cir. 1983).Accordingly, the district court correctlydismissed Metra’s suit for lack of subject matterjurisdiction. Conclusion For the reasons stated herein, we AFFIRM thedecision of the district court. :::FOOTNOTES::: FN1 This lawsuit was based on an Illinois appellatecourt decision, Callis, Papa, Jensen, Jackstadt& Halloran, P.C. v. Norfolk Southern Corp., 292Ill.App.3d 1003 (1997), which suggested that alaw firm in Hoey’s position might have a tortiousinterference claim against the railroad.
Northeast Ill. Regional Commuter Railroad Corp. v. Hoey, Farina & Downes United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit No. 99-1588 Northeast Illinois Regional CommuterRailroad Corporation, d/b/a Metra, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Hoey Farina & Downes, Defendant-Appellee. Appeal From: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division Argued: February 14, 2000 Decided: May 15, 2000 Before: Bauer, Flaum, and Evans, Circuit Judges.
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