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Hoffman v. Lonza Inc.

decided: August 31, 1981.

ALBERT HOFFMAN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LONZA, INC., A CORPORATION, AND OIL, CHEMICAL & ATOMIC WORKERS' INTERNATIONAL UNION, PEKIN LOCAL NO. 7-662, A LABOR ORGANIZATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES .



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division. No. 80-C-1028 -- Robert D. Morgan, Judge .

Before Bauer, Circuit Judge, PECK, Senior Circuit Judge,*fn* and Cudahy, Circuit Judge.

Author: PECK

Appellee Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers' International Union, Pekin Local No. 7-662 filed a grievance with Lonza, Inc. on behalf of appellant Hoffman, alleging that Hoffman had been wrongfully discharged. The grievance moved through the first two steps of the grievance procedure that was provided by the collective bargaining agreement between Lonza, Inc. and the Union without vindicating Hoffman. In order for the grievance to proceed to the third step, the Union was required to file a written appeal of the step two result within five days. If no appeal was filed within that time, the collective bargaining agreement provided that the grievance was to be considered satisfactorily resolved at step two. The Union "forgot" to give the required written appeal within five days, and subsequently informed Hoffman of this oversight. These facts were alleged by the Union in support of its motion for summary judgment and were admitted by Hoffman in his cross-motion for summary judgment. The district court granted the Union's motion for summary judgment and denied Hoffman's cross-motion.

This appeal raises the single question whether a labor union can be sued in federal court, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. ยง 185, for a breach of its duty of fair representation of an employee in a grievance proceeding because the union, without explanation, permitted the employee's grievance proceeding to be terminated by failing to file a timely notice of intent to carry the grievance to arbitration. Because the courts may enforce the duty of a union to fairly represent an employee only when union conduct breaching that duty is intentional, invidious, and directed at the employee, Motor Coach Employees v. Lockridge, 403 U.S. 274, 301, 91 S. Ct. 1909, 1925, 29 L. Ed. 2d 473 (1971), we hold that an action for breach of the duty to fairly represent requires more than a showing that the union failed to properly process the employee's grievance.

Hoffman contends that the Union breached its duty to fairly represent him in the grievance procedure when it "forgot" to file a notice of appeal within the proscribed time limit. Hoffman recognizes that a legal action against the Union for a breach of its duty to fairly represent him can be sustained only if the Union acted in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner, or if the Union acted in bad faith. Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 87 S. Ct. 903, 17 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1967). While conceding that the Union was not required to process his claim through the entire grievance procedure, Hoffman argues that the duty of fair representation required the Union to evaluate his claim before deciding to abandon it. Hoffman contends that negligently permitting the claim to lapse by "forgetting" a deadline rather than by a conscious, rational decision to abandon the grievance was an arbitrary and perfunctory act by the Union and a breach of its duty.

In Ruzicka v. General Motors Corp., 523 F.2d 306 (1975) (Ruzicka I ), a case with facts essentially identical to those of the present case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit appeared to adopt the reasoning advanced by Hoffman in the present case. Acknowledging the "arbitrary, discriminatory, or bad faith" standard of Vaca, the Sixth Circuit concluded that negligent handling of a grievance unrelated to the merits of that grievance was a "clear example of arbitrary and perfunctory handling of a grievance" and constituted unfair representation that was cognizable by the court.*fn1 Id. at 310. In reaching that conclusion the Sixth Circuit was influenced by a statement in Vaca that a union administering grievance and arbitration machinery must make good faith and nonarbitrary decisions to the merits of a grievance. Id. The Sixth Circuit concluded that an unexplained failure to make any decision breached that duty.

In Ruzicka v. General Motors, et al., 649 F.2d 1207 (1981) (Ruzicka II ), the Sixth Circuit clarified its holding in Ruzicka I. In Ruzicka II the Sixth Circuit explained that a union's failure to act on an employee's grievance could be a breach of the union's duty to fairly represent only when the union's failure to act amounts to more than ordinary negligence. The court stated that in order for a union's omission to give rise to an action for breach of the duty to fairly represent, that omission would have to be "intended to harm" the employee or be conduct reflecting "reckless disregard for the rights of the individual employee." The Sixth Circuit concluded that "arbitrarily" failing to process a grievance, without a sound reason for that failure, would render the union liable for unfair representation. At 1212. Thus, Ruzicka II makes clear that the Sixth Circuit has not adopted Hoffman's contention that simply "forgetting" to file a notice of appeal constitutes a breach of the duty to fairly represent. Rather, Ruzicka II asserts that the type of "arbitrary" conduct needed for such a breach is conduct "intended to harm" the employee or conduct reflecting a "reckless disregard for the rights of the individual employee."

This Circuit has not previously decided whether an action may lie against a labor union for a breach of its duty to fairly represent an employee when the union unintentionally permits the employee's grievance proceeding to lapse without properly evaluating the merits of that grievance. Prior decisions of this Court have advanced the proposition that proof of negligence or poor judgment by a union handling a grievance is not sufficient to support an action for unfair representation. E. g., Dwyer v. Climatrol Industries, Inc., 544 F.2d 307 (1976); Cannon v. Consolidated Freightways Corp., 524 F.2d 290 (1975). However, in these cases the unions involved had attempted to process the employees' grievances, and the subsequent claims of failure to fairly represent were based on alleged shortcomings in the unions' performances. In the present case, as in Ruzicka, the complaint arises from the union's failure to act upon the merits of the grievance, and gives rise to the question whether the union's negligence in failing to act is qualitatively different from negligent action insofar as the duty to fairly represent is concerned.

Our decisions in Miller v. Gateway Transportation Co., Inc., 616 F.2d 272 (1980) and Baldini v. Local Union No. 1095, 581 F.2d 145 (1978), relied on by the concurrence are of no assistance in determining whether a simply negligent failure to process a grievance may be the type of "arbitrary" conduct sufficient to constitute a breach of the union's duty to fairly represent. In Gateway and in Baldini this Court reversed summary judgments against employees because in each case there existed genuine issues of fact whether a union's conduct in handling an employee's grievance breached the union's duty to fairly represent. In Gateway, the record indicated that the union had made no effort to represent the employee. This circumstance permitted inferences that the union's conduct was "arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith." In Baldini, the record permitted inferences that the union's failure to proceed to arbitration was motivated by malice or discrimination or by bad faith. Neither of these cases hold that the "arbitrary" conduct of Vaca may be anything less than an intentional wrongdoing, although the dicta of footnote five in Baldini, 581 F.2d at 150, makes that statement.

The Supreme Court has made it clear that the employees' judicial remedy for "unfair representation" is not based on concepts of due process. Rather, "the duty of fair representation was judicially evolved ... to enforce fully the important principle that no individual union member may suffer invidious, hostile treatment at the hands of his coworkers." Lockridge, supra 403 U.S. at 301, 91 S. Ct. at 1925. The remedy for a failure to fairly represent "carries with it the need to adduce substantial evidence of discrimination that is intentional, severe, and unrelated to legitimate union objectives." Id.*fn2

The Supreme Court has required this showing of intentional misconduct in order to limit the situations in which an employee may judicially contest the results of grievance and arbitration proceedings that are the subject of collective bargaining and properly within the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board rather than the jurisdiction of the courts. In order to assure that interference with the administrative process by the courts is so limited, the Court stated that the "distinction ... between honest, mistaken conduct, on the one hand, and deliberate and severely hostile and irrational treatment, on the other, needs strictly to be maintained." Id.

There is a second important reason for limiting suits for breach of the duty to fairly represent to instances of intentional misconduct by unions. Where an employee is successful in showing that he was not fairly represented in a grievance proceeding, then the result of that proceeding may be set aside and the employee then permitted to contest his dispute with his employer in court. Thus, in many "unfair representation" suits, as in the present case, while the union is a putative defendant, the ultimate relief sought by the employee is reinstatement and backpay. At least insofar as an employee seeks reinstatement and backpay, the union defendant of a suit for "unfair representation" may have little reason to vigorously contest the issue of alleged union wrongdoing. To permit an employee to recover because his union "forgot" to follow required grievance procedures would create an unacceptably high risk of collusion between union and employee, both of whom may share the same ultimate goal of reinstatement of the employee. By permitting actions for failure to fairly represent only where the employee can show intentional, invidious misconduct by the union, the possibility of collusive suits is minimized.

For these reasons it is apparent that an action based on a duty to fairly represent cannot be based solely on some action or omission by the union that results in an employee not receiving a "fair" hearing on the merits of a grievance. The legal action based on the union's duty to fairly represent might be more properly labeled as an action for the union intentionally causing harm to an employee involved in a grievance proceeding. The "duty" is not breached and the employee has no remedy without substantial evidence of fraud, deceitful action or dishonest conduct. Lockridge, supra 403 U.S. at 299, 91 S. Ct. at 1924, citing Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335, 348, 84 S. Ct. 363, 371, 11 L. Ed. 2d 370 (1964). We must therefore part company with the Sixth Circuit, and hold that an action for failure to fairly represent cannot be based solely on an allegation that a union unintentionally failed to file a notice that would permit a grievance to proceed to arbitration.

Hoffman admitted that the Union "forgot" to make a timely filing of a notice of appeal and offered no proof to create a genuine issue of fact whether the "forgetfulness" was in any manner intentional or calculated. Mere negligence cannot rise to the level of misconduct necessary to support an action for breach of the Union's duty of fair representation. Stating that the Union should have considered the merits of Hoffman's grievance rather than permitting his claim to lapse by failing to file a timely notice of appeal does ...


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