Federal Labor Law Does Not Preempt State Law Trespass Claims


Maryland’s highest court held that the National Labor Relations Act does not preempt an employer’s trespass and nuisance claims against a union that had staged disruptive demonstrations at the employer’s stores, and it upheld the lower court’s permanent injunction against the union.

Facts of the Case:  In United Food and Commercial Workers Int’l Union v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the UFCW held demonstrations at Walmart stores, including in Maryland, for the stated purpose of persuading Walmart to improve working conditions. UFCW stated that it was not seeking to represent Walmart employees, who are not unionized. The demonstrations involved flash mobs and demonstrators blocking store parking lots, store entrances and exits, and store traffic. Walmart sued the UFCW in state court for trespass, seeking an injunction and other damages.

The UFCW argued that the case involved a labor dispute for which, under the Maryland Anti-Injunction Act, heightened requirements for an injunction applied. It also argued that Walmart’s claims were preempted by the NLRA, meaning that either Congress has expressly stated an intent for federal law to prevail, or state law impermissibly conflicts with federal law.

The Court’s Ruling:  The Maryland Court of Appeals first acknowledged that the NLRA regulates labor disputes between employers, unions, and employees, and, of relevance here, prohibits unions from interfering with employees’ rights to refrain from joining a union. The NLRA is presumed to apply, unless an exception applies. One such exception, known as the “local interest exception,” applies when the conduct at issue “touches on interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility that, in the absence of compelling congressional direction, it could not be inferred that Congress intended to deprive the state of the power to act.” There are two factors to this exception: (1) is there a significant state interest, and (2) would there be interference with the regulatory jurisdiction of the NLRB if the state court addressed the controversy?

In the present case, the Court rejected the UFCW’s argument that the local interest exception applied only to conduct involving violence, threats of violence, property damage or malice. Rather, pointing to Supreme Court precedent, the Court found that preventing peaceful trespass qualifies as a significant state interest. The Court also found that a significant state interest in protecting private property rights. As to the second factor, the Court found that this particular issue is not the same as one that was or could have been presented to the NLRB, even if they arose from the same conduct. In so holding, the Court looked to the legal elements of the claims, the issues that would be presented to each tribunal, and the remedies that each tribunal is authorized to award. Thus, the Court held that the local interest exception applied to Walmart’s claims.

The Court also found that the case did not involve a labor dispute within the meaning of the AIA, and thus was not subject to a heightened standard for injunction. The union did not represent Walmart employees and was not seeking to do so during the demonstrations. Moreover, the case did not involve the negotiation of employment conditions or demonstrations by the employees themselves.

Lessons Learned:  This case demonstrates that employers may have recourse beyond the NLRA in state tort law, depending on the circumstances.