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Illinois Supreme Court: Federal Labor Law Preempts Union Employees’ BIPA Claims

Tianmei Ann Huang |

The Illinois Supreme Court in Walton v. Roosevelt University, 2023 IL 128338 (Mar. 23, 2023), unanimously affirmed dismissal of the putative class action arising under the Illinois Biometric Privacy Information Act, 740 ILCS 14/1 (“BIPA”), concluding that federal labor law preempted BIPA claims brought by unionized employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). Consistent with Seventh Circuit federal court decisions in support of federal preemption, the Walton high court’s ruling specifically provides that Section 301 of the federal Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), 29 U.S.C. § 185, preempts BIPA claims asserted by union employees (or bargaining unit employees) covered by a CBA in Illinois state courts. Therefore, the federal preemption defense may be used to foreclose these unionized employees from bringing BIPA claims in state and federal courts, including on a class action basis.

In Walton, the representative plaintiff was a member of a union subject to a CBA, which included a broad management-rights clause, during his employment with Roosevelt University. The putative class alleged that Roosevelt University used scanning devices to enroll employees’ hand geometry scans for timekeeping purposes, but Roosevelt University failed to fulfill BIPA’s Section 15 requirements. However, under the LMRA, the provisions of the CBA should govern, and even if “biometric” data is not expressly discussed within the CBA, a broad management-rights clause along with provisions regarding employee timekeeping and grievance resolution procedures may be sufficient to preclude BIPA litigation.

Overall, the Walton decision offers a measure of relief to defendants involved in BIPA disputes brought by union employees, particularly following the liability-expanding Illinois Supreme Court decisions in Cothron and Tims, as previously discussed. To avoid future litigation, employers should carefully exercise their exclusive rights to direct the employees covered by a CBA or other contract.