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Fries v. United Mine Workers of America

JULY 31, 1975.

FRANK FRIES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Macoupin County; the Hon. FRANCIS J. BERGEN, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GREEN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Defendant, the International Union, United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.A.), appeals from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Macoupin County ordering it to pay plaintiff, Frank W. Fries, a pension of $500 per month until plaintiff's death plus $35,000 in retroactive pension benefits. Defendant challenges the findings of the trial court (1) that there was an oral contract by which the International Union was obligated to pay plaintiff a pension of $500 per month from the date of his retirement until his death, and (2) that the doctrine of promissory estoppel was also applicable.

In January, 1942, the plaintiff entered into a written employment contract with District 12, U.M.W.A., and the Illinois Coal Operators Association in which it was agreed that he would act as a labor arbitrator in District 12, which encompasses the State of Illinois, and that the district and the operators would each pay half of plaintiff's salary and expenses. Plaintiff testified that this job offer resulted from a request by John L. Lewis to the president of District 12 to find a position for plaintiff. The contract was signed by plaintiff, the president and vice-president of District 12, and the president of the Illinois Coal Operators Association. The signature of John L. Lewis, in his capacity as president of the International Union, also appears on the contract below the other signatures.

In 1950, a similar written contract was entered into by the same parties. At the bottom of that contract the notation "APPROVED:" appears before Lewis' signature. In 1950, plaintiff also entered into a written contract with the Indiana Coal Producers Association and District 11, U.M.W.A. (Indiana), in which plaintiff was employed as a joint umpire in District 11 under similar terms. The signature of John L. Lewis does not appear on that contract. None of these contracts provided for a pension or retirement benefits. After 1950 there were no further written contracts, but plaintiff continued to work as an arbitrator under oral agreements and received raises in salary whenever the miners themselves received pay increases.

During plaintiff's 26 years of employment, although he primarily worked in District 12, he also served regularly in District 11 and, at one time or another, arbitrated in almost every other district of the U.M.W.A.

Plaintiff retired on March 1, 1968, by a letter of resignation which he sent to the Illinois Coal Operators Association and Joe Shannon, then acting president of District 12.

On March 22, 1968, John Owens, secretary-treasurer of the International Union, wrote to plaintiff commending him for his years of service and telling him, "You will be hearing from us before long." In October, 1969, plaintiff wrote to John Owens inquiring about his pension from the union and Owens answered that it had not yet been determined because the union needed to have plaintiff submit a record of his salary and that plaintiff would receive whatever benefits he was entitled to retroactively. However, no pension payments were ever made to plaintiff, and on August 29, 1970, he filed suit against the International Union.

Plaintiff's claim that there was an oral agreement to pay him a pension is based on conversations he had with union officials including John L. Lewis, Tony Boyle, Tom Kennedy, John Owens, and Joe Shannon. At the time of trial, John L. Lewis and Tom Kennedy were deceased, Tony Boyle was in protective custody following a suicide attempt, and John Owens was too ill to travel. Only Joe Shannon was available to testify.

Plaintiff testified that the first conversation concerning a pension took place about 1960, shortly after the establishment of the U.M.W.A. pension trust, which provided for pensions for union employees. At that time plaintiff was in Washington, D.C. on union business and met with John L. Lewis, then president of the International Union, who told plaintiff, "Of course, Frank, you understand that you will be given a pension at the expiration or the termination of your employment." According to plaintiff, John L. Lewis also told him the amount of his pension would be predicated on his salary as an arbitrator.

Plaintiff also recalled discussing his pension situation with Tom Kennedy and Tony Boyle during the terms that they each served as vice-president of the International Union under John L. Lewis. At different times they each told plaintiff that although he did not come under the union's pension plan, he would be paid retirement benefits based on his salary and computed on the same basis as provided for in the pension plan.

At the 1964 U.M.W.A. convention in Miami, plaintiff had a conversation with John Owens, secretary-treasurer of the International Union. According to plaintiff, Owens said, "Frank, you will be taken care of the same as any of the other officials of the U.M.W.A. when you retire."

Michael Verticchio, a friend of the plaintiff who sometimes assisted him with his arbitration cases, testified that in July, 1967, he and plaintiff had lunch with Joe Shannon, then acting president of District 12 and an International Executive Board member. On that occasion, according to Verticchio, Shannon assured plaintiff that it had been understood for years that he would receive a pension and that he would retire at a full pension, although no specific amount was mentioned. Verticchio also testified that Shannon told plaintiff that he (Shannon) would do anything he could to help plaintiff get his pension.

David Williams, a labor commissioner for the Illinois Coal Operators Association, testified that at the suggestion of the president of the operators association he discussed plaintiff's pension with Joe Shannon several times just before plaintiff retired and told Shannon that the operators would match the amount paid by the union. According to Williams, when no pension from the union was forthcoming, the board of directors of the coal operators decided to pay plaintiff "40% of his base pay from the operators side of the table," which amounted to $170 per month. The operators have made pension payments to plaintiff in accordance with this decision.

Plaintiff also testified that in September, 1969, after he had retired, he received a telephone call from Tony Boyle, then president of the International Union, who told plaintiff that he wanted him to come to Washington and that he had good news for him. Plaintiff went to Washington accompanied by his nephew, Al Fries, and met with Boyle and Owens. According to plaintiff, Boyle told him that a wonderful pension had been fixed up for him. Both Boyle and Owens told plaintiff that the pension would be $500 per month for life and would be paid retroactively. They mentioned $9000 as the amount of retroactive benefits which had accrued at that time. Al Fries testified that he entered the room toward the end of the discussion and heard Boyle tell plaintiff, "You can expect checks in the mail in a few days." He also heard Owens mention the amount of $9000 in retroactive benefits and recalled that ...


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