Attorney Ryan Persuades Federal Judge That Labor Union Fairly Represented Former Hospital Employee

March 06, 2019

On March 7, 2019, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock agreed with Attorney Jillian Ryan's motion that 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East (Union) acted fairly toward a member and that an untimely lawsuit by a former member must be dismissed.

A union that has earned the support of a majority of workers has the duty to represent those workers fairly when bargaining and administering a collective bargaining agreement. This obligation, known as the "duty of fair representation," generally requires the union to investigate possible grievances of employees they represent and make good-faith and reasonable decisions about whether to demand arbitration of those grievances. Such decisions about whether to invoke arbitration should be based upon the merits, the potential cost, and other matters pertinent to representing all employees. The decisions cannot consider whether the employee is a member of the Union or even has paid any dues to the Union.

The underlying federal case here arose after the ex-employee was terminated by the Hospital. The Hospital already had issued two Final Warnings to the ex-employee, citing ongoing performance issues and insubordination. The Union, after investigating the circumstances and processing the grievance through various steps, notified the ex-employee that it would not seek arbitration to reinstate the ex-employee.

The Union represented the ex-employee at all steps of the grievance procedure. The pursuit of the grievance enabled the Union to gather information about the situation and explore settlement possibilities. The Union's experienced representatives reviewed the case file and decided that the Union was unlikely to prevail at arbitration. Union representatives then notified the ex-employee of this decision as well as his right to appeal this decision to internal committees of the Union. The ex-employee initially requested this internal appeal.

During this internal appeal process, the Union and Hospital reached a settlement on the grievance, given that the ex-employee had expressed an openness toward settlement. The Union notified the ex-employee to weigh in on the settlement or continue with the internal appeal. An attorney for the ex-employee alleged that the Union violated the duty of fair representation, but otherwise the ex-employee took no steps on the settlement or appeal.

Months later, the ex-employee filed a lawsuit alleging that the Union violated its duty of fair representation. The Union again offered the ex-employee an opportunity to appeal to the internal Union committee and to further appeal that decision to another internal board. The ex-employee did so as well as voluntarily withdrawing his suit against the Union. Both of his internal union appeals were denied.

Several months later, the ex-employee again filed suit against the Hospital and the Union. Attorneys Betsy Ehrenberg and Jillian Ryan represented the Union. Attorney Ryan filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the case was untimely for being filed more than 18 months after the ex-employee knew the Union was not going to proceed to arbitration. (Such claims typically must be filed within six months).

Judge Woodlock agreed with Attorney Ryan. He also was persuaded by her alternative argument that, even if the lawsuit was timely filed, it still must be dismissed because the Union fairly represented the ex-employee. As recounted by the Judge, the Union adequately investigated the Plaintiff’s grievance, represented him through all steps of the grievance process, and even negotiated a reasonable settlement on his behalf. The Union appropriately weighed the merits of the grievance and acted within its broad range of reasonableness when it decided not to pursue arbitration. Finally, Judge Woodlock found no support for the Plaintiff’s claim that the Union refused to arbitrate his grievance because of an earlier complaint the Plaintiff filed with the NLRB. The judge noted that the Union took all justifiable steps to assist the Plaintiff and afforded him fair and impartial appeal hearings.

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