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FULK v. UNITED TRANSP. UNION

March 5, 1998

JESSE FULK AND DONALD CEARLOCK, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED TRANSPORTATION UNION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, District Judge.

OPINION

The bottom line.

Summary judgment for the Union.

United Transportation Union (Union) represents operating craft employees of Norfolk Southern Railroad (Railroad). Jesse Fulk and Donald Cearlock are former employees of the Railroad and former members of the Union.

After much litigation — including two appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit — only one issue remains in this case: Did the voting procedures used to decide whether to approve the Railroad's buyout of certain "productivity funds" violate the Union's Constitution?

I. BACKGROUND

Here's what happened. The productivity funds at issue in this case were the product of a 1984 "crew consist" agreement between the Union and the Railroad. That agreement permitted the Railroad to reduce the operating crew size of each train from two brakemen and a conductor to one brakeman and a conductor as workers gradually left their jobs with the Railroad. In return, the Railroad agreed to share the resulting operating cost savings with the employees. Each time a train operated with a reduced crew, the Railroad paid $53.25 into a so-called "productivity fund" which was maintained for the benefit of the workers.

The Railroad maintained a separate productivity fund for each of several different geographical regions known as "seniority districts." The existence of these seniority districts predated the productivity fund arrangement. Only employees with seniority in a given district could work and receive payments from the productivity fund in that district. At the end of the year, the amount reflected in each productivity fund was totaled and divided among the workers in the fund's seniority district. The benefits of the funds varied greatly because the amount of work and the frequency of reduced crew usage varied across districts.

When the Railroad proposed to buy out the productivity funds in July 1991, the proposal came in conjunction with another proposed modification of the 1984 collective bargaining agreement. The Railroad wanted to further reduce operating crew sizes to only one worker. Assuming this proposal was approved by union membership, the Railroad was prepared to buy out its obligation to maintain the productivity funds. Under the terms of the buyout agreement, the Railroad would pay each worker $20,000 up front and an additional $40,000 upon the worker's death, retirement, or termination of employment. The crew reduction proposal and the productivity fund buyout were presented to the union membership separately. The union membership would only have the option of approving the buyout if it approved the crew reduction.

The union leadership decided to employ a different voting procedure for each of the two proposals. The crew reduction proposal would stand or fall upon an aggregate vote of the entire union membership within certain subunits of the Union known as General Committees of Adjustment (GCAs). The GCAs covered geographic territories which were considerably larger than the seniority districts. Plaintiffs were members of GCA GO-719 which covered a territory known as the former Wabash Railroad territory and encompassed twelve different seniority districts. General Chairperson Kim Thompson headed GCA GO-719.

The voting procedure adopted for the productivity fund buyout proposal was markedly different. During negotiations, General Chairperson Thompson proposed, and the Railroad agreed, to allow each district the opportunity to approve or reject the proposed buyout of its productivity fund. This approach was justified by the fact that the value of each district's fund varied, as did the relative proportion of older employees to younger employees. Accordingly, the productivity fund buyout proposal would be voted on at the seniority district level, allowing union members in each of the twelve districts to decide whether or not to approve the buyout of its particular fund. The union membership in Plaintiffs' GCA were informed of the district by district voting procedure in advance of the voting date.

General Chairperson Thompson submitted the two proposals for a vote in late 1991. The crew reduction proposal was approved by the aggregate vote of GCA GO-719's membership. Predictably, the results of the district by district vote on the productivity fund buyout varied, each district reaching different conclusions about whether to retain or relinquish its productivity fund. Plaintiffs' district voted to retain its fund. Plaintiffs, who were near retirement, did not expect to enjoy much future benefit from their district's fund and therefore would have preferred to receive the $60,000 in buyout money.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), summary judgment "should be granted if the pleadings and supporting documents show that `there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Ruiz-Rivera v. Moyer, 70 F.3d 498, 500-01 (7th Cir. 1995). The moving party has the burden of providing proper documentary evidence to show the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, ...


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