APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. EDWARD
J. EGAN, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE GOLDBERG DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Eileen I. Napier (plaintiff) brought an action for declaratory judgment against Chicago Fire Fighters Union, Local No. 2, affiliated with International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO (Union) and Bankers Life and Casualty Company (Insurer.) She sought to establish her right to a death benefit in connection with the death of her late husband, George W. Napier. Both plaintiff and the Union made motions for summary judgment. The trial judge denied the Union's motion and entered judgment in favor of plaintiff. The Union and the Insurer appeal.
The Union contends that its by-laws are constitutional; both Federal law and the law of Illinois forbid interference by courts with the internal affairs of any voluntary organization; the by-laws of the Union were binding on deceased and on plaintiff; and, finally, the decision appealed from "undermines the Union's ability to maintain loyal membership." In plaintiff's brief, she contends that the trial court had power to void the posthumous expulsion of her husband; and a member of a union may not be posthumously expelled. Plaintiff further states the issue to be, "The purported expulsion was invalid because of the absence of due process."
There is no disputed issue of fact. On November 2, 1940, the deceased, George W. Napier, joined the Union and became a member in good standing. It is clear that he paid his union dues regularly until his death. In accordance with its by-laws, the Union contracted with the Insurer for group insurance covering its members; including a death benefit or donation of $1000. The Union paid the necessary premiums upon this policy. Plaintiff was designated as beneficiary of the deceased.
Some time thereafter, while maintaining his membership in the Union, the deceased also became a member of the Chicago Fire Officers Association. Deceased was then an officer and at the time of his death he was a Chief Division Fire Marshall in the City of Chicago Fire Department. Deceased paid his dues in full to this Officers Association until his death.
On or about October 19, 1964, the Executive Board of the Union determined that this Association was an organization which was detrimental to the principles, as well as to the operation of the Union. This determination was announced at several regular monthly membership meetings of the Union, as appears from the minutes of such meetings. The constitution and by-laws of the Union provide that they may be amended by referendum vote. Amendments are to be presented by written petition signed by at least 15 members of the Union. The amendment must then be approved by the local Executive Board and the referendum vote follows. It is undisputed that the Union by-laws were amended by secret ballot referendum effective August 7, 1965. Article XII of the constitution and by-laws refers to death donations. The amendment provides:
"No death Donation shall be paid to any person in the event a member shall be found to be in violation of Section 7 of Article VIII of the By-Laws."
At the same time Article VIII Section 7 was amended as follows:
"Any member found by the Executive Board to be in violation of this Section shall immediately and automatically forfeit the right to any benefits from this Union, either for himself or for any other person. Such forfeiture shall also apply in the case of such violation arising at the time of the death of a member, provided, however, that in such latter case, the Executive Board shall allow the legal representatives of the deceased member the opportunity to be heard."
In January of 1966, a letter was written by the President of the Union, approved by its Executive Board, and sent to every member by mail, including plaintiff's husband. This letter specified the determination of the Executive Board on October 19, 1964 that "* * * the Fire Officers Association of Chicago is an organization which is detrimental to the principles, operation and business of this Union." Attention of the membership was also directed to the above quoted amendment to Article VIII, Section 7, which was reproduced in full. There is no denial in the record by plaintiff of receipt of this communication by the deceased.
After the death of plaintiff's husband on August 1, 1968, plaintiff made a demand for payment of the death benefit. However, notice of the membership of deceased in the Chicago Fire Officers Association came to the attention of the Union for the first time from newspaper obituary notices. A hearing was held by the Union Executive Board on November 14, 1968. Plaintiff and her attorney attended this meeting. Plaintiff and her attorney then and there admitted that the deceased had been a member of the Fire Officers Association. The Executive Board found that the deceased was not a member of the Union in good standing and that plaintiff was accordingly not entitled to receive the death donation.
• 1 In our opinion, it is unnecessary for us to decide or even to consider the various constitutional and other legal matters extensively briefed and argued by both sides of the controversy. We will merely state parenthetically that this record presents no attempted interference with the internal affairs of a voluntary organization. It is simply an adjudication by the courts of the rights of plaintiff, who was never a member of the Union. We prefer to rest our decision of this cause upon simple and readily apparent grounds.
• 2 It is a basic principle of labor law that the constitution and by-laws of a union legally constitute a binding contract between the members themselves and between the members and the union. O'Brien v. Matual, 41 Ill. App.2d 173, 197, 144 N.E.2d 446.
• 3 We find that plaintiff, as surviving beneficiary of a deceased member, is entitled to the death donation under the clear and unambiguous language of Article XII Section 1 which provides that the death donation shall not be "* * * paid to any person in the event a member shall be found to be in violation of Section 7 of Article VIII * * *." The clear purport of this by-law as amended is that the death benefit shall not be paid in event any member has been found to be in violation of the by-laws. In the case at bar, the union membership of deceased ...