By Danielle Kays, and Danny Riley, Law Clerk

Seyfarth Synopsis: On March 23, 2023, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the appellate court’s decision in Walton v. Roosevelt University, ruling that the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”) preempts the Illinois Biometric Privacy Information Act (“BIPA”). Following recent BIPA decisions that have ramped up the risk of liability for employers (see more information on Tims and White Castle), the decision in Walton helps to curb BIPA exposure for employers with broad management rights clauses in their collective bargaining agreements.

Background on Walton v. Roosevelt University

The case involves a dispute over the enrollment of employees’ hand geometry scans in a timekeeping system used by Roosevelt University. In March 2019, the plaintiffs filed a class-action complaint against Roosevelt, alleging that the University’s collection, use, storage, and disclosure of the biometric information was in violation of several sections of BIPA Sections  (a), (b), (d). In response, Roosevelt moved to dismiss, arguing that the BIPA claims were preempted by Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947 (“LMRA”) (29 U.S.C. § 185 (2018)). Because Walton was a member of a union during his employment, he had agreed to and was bound by the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between his union and the University. Accordingly, the University argued that the manner by which employees clock in and out is covered by a broad management-rights clause and required grievance procedures under the CBA. 

In support of its motion to dismiss, the University cited the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Miller v. Southwest Airlines Co., 926 F.3d 898, 903 (7th Cir. 2019), which held that federal labor law preempts BIPA claims when the claims require interpretation or administration of a CBA. However, in May 2020, the circuit court denied the University’s motion to dismiss, finding Miller to be distinguishable from the facts at issue in this case. The court’s opinion noted that a preemption argument is not relevant here because a BIPA claim “is not intertwined with or dependent substantially upon consideration of terms of [a] collective bargaining agreement” where a “person’s rights under [BIPA] exist independently of both employment and any given CBA.” Following the circuit court’s opinion, it certified the following question for interlocutory appeal, which was answered in the affirmative by the appellate court:

“Does Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (29 U.S.C.[ ] § 185) preempt [BIPA] claims  asserted by bargaining unit employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement?”

In its holding, the appellate court found that “that [BIPA] claims asserted by bargaining unit employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement are preempted under federal law.” The appellate court noted that the BIPA “contemplates the role of a collective bargaining unit acting as an intermediary on issues concerning an employee’s biometric information,” because BIPA prohibits private entities from obtaining biometric information without obtaining consent from either the subject or, notably, the subject’s legally authorized representative.”  Although biometric information was not expressly discussed in the CBA, the court found that the CBA contained a broad management-rights clause. Thus, “[t]he timekeeping procedures for workers are a topic for negotiation that is clearly covered by the collective bargaining agreement and requires the interpretation or administration of the agreement.”

The Illinois Supreme Court’s Decision

The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the appellate court decision, and held that the LMRA does indeed preempt BIPA in this case. The Supreme Court reasoned that BIPA’s regulation of the collection and use of biometric information creates a significant obstacle to the objectives of the LMRA, which seeks to promote labor-management cooperation and protect collective bargaining agreements. The Supreme Court further noted that allowing BIPA claims to proceed could interfere with the bargaining process and lead to inconsistent outcomes across different collective bargaining agreements.

Implications For Employers

This decision is a welcome win after recent plaintiff-friendly Illinois Supreme Court BIPA decisions.  While this decision does not prohibit employees from pursuing claims though grievance procedures in their collective bargaining agreements, it does shield employers from liability in court class actions or that might be sought through frivolous BIPA claims.  Therefore, this case is a reminder to carefully negotiate and review collective bargaining agreements. 

For more information about the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, and how this verdict may affect your business, contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or Seyfarth’s Workplace Privacy & Biometrics Practice Group.