Discharge of Pilot Arrested for Drug Possession Did Not Violate ERISA

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The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a federal trial court's determination that a pilot's ERISA lawsuit based on his termination was not precluded by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) and that the employer did not violate ERISA when it discharged the pilot shortly after he was arrested for possession of marijuana. See Sturge v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. (8th Cir. Oct. 7, 2011). The trial court's decision is discussed in our May 2009 Airline Newsletter.

In July 2003, a pilot employed by Northwest Airlines was placed on long-term medical leave as a result of injuries he suffered outside of work. On October 8, 2003, he applied for disability retirement benefits available pursuant to the Northwest Airlines Pension Plan for Pilot Employees. A few days after he applied for disability retirement, the pilot was arrested for possession of marijuana. After being informed of the arrest, Northwest began an investigation, during which the pilot admitted to possessing and using marijuana. Subsequently, the airline discharged him. The discharge was grieved and upheld by a system board of adjustment.

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