Alaska Airlines is suing a mechanics union in federal court over a recent arbitration decision that reversed the 2022 firing of a technician who tested positive for THC. The company alleges the arbitration board that rendered the decision earlier this month “acted in excess of its authority by dispensing its own brand of industrial justice.”
The five-page complaint, filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, says the board reinstated the worker, Gregory Chappell, “based on a series of findings and conclusions that were wholly unsupported by fact or reason.”
In comments to Marijuana Moment on Friday, the lawyer who represented the mechanics union at arbitration, Lee Seham, said it’s “extremely uncommon” for companies to challenge arbitration decisions in federal court, noting that such awards are typically considered final and binding.
The dispute centers on a random drug test given to Chappell on July 5, 2022. After it came back positive for marijuana, the worker denied using cannabis and said he was unaware of how the THC would have entered his system.
“I don’t smoke weed,” he told an Alaska Airlines maintenance director in an investigatory interview at the time, according to the arbitration decision, which says Chappell “denied using marijuana or other drugs, and could not explain the positive drug result other than speculating he may have unwittingly ingested a marijuana edible at a block party/barbecue he had recently attended.”
In reversing Alaska’s termination of Chappell, who lives in Washington State, the arbitration board referenced an earlier situation in which the airline allowed another maintenance technician to return to work after he self-reported eating a marijuana-infused cookie by mistake.
Ultimately the arbitration panel decided that Alaska Airlines did not have just cause to terminate the employee, as is required under union law. One supervisor, for example, admitted he did not “specifically” discuss with anyone that the worker had denied intentionally using marijuana.” As a consequence, another airline supervisor testified, “we didn’t see any reason to pursue accidental ingestion because that wasn’t offered as a potential reason” for the failed test.
“Just cause is a broad concept meaning fairness,” Seham, the lawyer who represented the fired worker, told Marijuana Moment after the arbitration award. “If someone says, ‘I’m innocent,’ and you don’t even investigate to the slightest degree his arguments, then you have not complied with your obligation to provide them both procedural and substantive due process.”
But in its newly filed lawsuit, Alaska Airlines says the board “acted in excess of its jurisdiction and authority because the award lacked foundation in fact or reason, did not draw its essence from the [collective bargaining agreement], and amounted to dispensing its own brand of industrial justice.”
“The Board ordered Mr. Chappell’s reinstatement,” it says, “because it determined that the Company’s disciplinary decision ‘may have been something other than termination’ had Mr. Chappell’s ‘potential accidental ingestion theory’ been presented during that meeting.”
Noting that the court has authority under the Railway Labor Act to dismiss the arbitration award, Alaska Airlines is asking for the reinstatement decision to be vacated.
Counsel for the Alaska Airlines, Joe Wonderly, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Seham, meanwhile, told Marijuana Moment on Friday that he’s optimistic about the worker’s chances in the face of the company’s lawsuit. “The win rate, without exaggerating, is about one in a thousand,” he said of similar challenges to arbitration awards.
The evolving legal landscape around cannabis in the United States has complicated drug testing standards, especially in federally regulated sectors, and has encouraged employers and policymakers alike to reconsider when and how people are screened for marijuana.
Earlier this month, the House Rules Committee blocked renewed attempts by a Democratic congressman to end the practice of drug testing federal job applicants for cannabis use.
But in September, however, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee passed a standalone bipartisan bill that would prevent the denial of federal employment or security clearances based on a candidate’s past marijuana use.
While rescheduling of marijuana to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act could eventually allow use of medical marijuana by some federal employees—even in states where it’s currently illegal—people who work as federal contractors or grantees would likely not see a policy shift. Under federal law governing public contracts, contractors may not possess or use a “controlled substance,” defined as any drug in Schedules I through V.
Last week the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration filed federal drug testing program rules changes clarifying that using medical marijuana under a doctor’s recommendation in a legal state is not a valid excuse for a positive THC test.
Read the full federal court complaint below: