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Northern District of Illinois Judge Finds That Silence in Illinois Law Does Not Mean Federal Law Automatically Preempts; Sends Case Back to State Court in Whitmore v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc.

As shown by Mitchell v. JCG Industries and Koch Foods, the issue of whether federal law preempts state law when there is a collective bargaining agreement is complex. Different judges can interpret “silent” provisions of a state law in different ways — from permitting an activity to denying it. It becomes especially complex when the issue of proper forum is involved. Generally, a case relying on state law is filed in state court, and one relying on federal law is filed in federal court. When an issue arises as to whether federal law preempts, the question of which court the case belongs in becomes key. That is when it is important to have a Chicago overtime attorney at your side.

In Whitmore v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., plaintiff Steven Whitmore brought a suit against the defendant for back pay owed under the Illinois Minimum Wage Law (IMWL) and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (IWPCA) for time spent putting on and removing, or “donning and doffing,” his equipment each day. Whitmore worked at Kraft’s Chicago plant, where every morning he had to put on protective gear, including “safety footwear, white frocks, hairnets, earplugs, hardhats, bump hats and protective aprons” before walking to his workplace. When he first filed suit, he did so in Illinois state court. Because Whitmore belonged to a union and his employment was governed by a collective bargaining agreement, the defendant insisted that federal labor law preempted state law. The defendant then had the case removed to federal district court. The plaintiff filed a motion to have the case brought back to state court.

As Judge Edmond Chang of the Northern District of Illinois considered whether the plaintiff’s case properly belonged in state court, he referred to a very recent, similar case, Spoerle v. Kraft (2010). In Spoerle, Wisconsin plaintiffs had sought pay for time spent “donning and doffing” equipment; the Seventh Circuit held that federal law did not preempt Wisconsin state law, which required compensation for “donning and doffing.” In this case, because Illinois state law does not specifically discuss “donning and doffing,” the defendant argued that federal law preempts state law. When federal law completely preempts, the claim becomes a federal issue and belongs in federal district court.

Judge Chang remarked that even though the IMWL does not mention “donning and doffing” specifically, the law could still address it in other ways. “Many statutes use broad terms that require interpretation in order to determine whether the broad term encompasses more specific categories of conduct,” he noted. The IMWL requires an employee to receive compensation for work in excess of 40 hours per week. There are several possible examples of overtime work that it does not discuss, such as an employee meeting with a supervisor, yet that does not mean that those situations are automatically excluded.

The court in Spoerle found that when federal law preempted state law, it was in cases where the state law threatened to remove rights guaranteed by collective bargaining agreements — not where it added a right that was not in the agreement. In light of the Spoerle interpretation, Judge Chang sided with the plaintiff. He ordered the case to be sent back to state court.

The attorneys at Chicago Overtime Law Center have decades of experience litigating wage and hour cases, including overtime, vacation pay, meal breaks, and tips. We have offices conveniently located in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, Illinois. Contact an Lyons meal break attorney at the Chicago Overtime Law Center today at 312-869-4095.