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American Airlines Can Compel Arbitration for Whistleblower

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 28, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal appeals court ruled that American Airlines can compel arbitration for a whistleblower.

In American Airlines v. Mawhinney, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the company did not waive its right to arbitrate by waiting to invoke the right until after a government probe into the whistleblower's claims.

It was the second time in a week that the appeals court has ruled in favor of arbitration. In the American Airlines case, however, it was only half a favor.

No Waiver

In the 3-0 decision, the Ninth Circuit partially reversed a lower court ruling. The judges said the airlines could compel arbitration, but the technician's union could not because it was not party to the arbitration provision.

Robert Steven Macwhinney alleged he was fired in retaliation for complaining about maintenance problems that violated federal regulations. He pursued administrative remedies with the Department of Labor.

The airlines and the union moved to compel arbitration. The Ninth Circuit ruled that American Air may pursue arbitration, leaving Macwhinney to continue his labor claims against the union.

In reversing the trial court, the appeals panel said the trial judge ruled too broadly in favor of arbitration with the union. Arbitration clauses should be interpreted broadly only when they are ambiguous.

Too Broad

The union argued that it acted as the airline's agent regarding the whistleblower claims, but the appeals court didn't buy it. Judge Marsha Berzon wrote the question was not whether the issues were arbitrable, but whether the party was bound by the agreement.

"Under these circumstances, the liberal policy regarding the scope of arbitrable issues is inapposite," he said.

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