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Vought v. State of Wisconsin Teamsters Joint Council No. 39

March 10, 2009


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 05 C 552-Aaron E. Goodstein, Magistrate Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Evans, Circuit Judge


Before MANION, EVANS, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

If there's any truth to the rumor that Jimmy Hoffa has been resting for the last 33 years somewhere beneath the end zone at Giants Stadium (or "The Meadowlands" as the New York Jets prefer) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, this case, involving political in-fighting at a Teamster's Local in Wisconsin, might cause his body to stir just a bit.

In today's case, we revisit the question of whether the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), 29 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., allows an individual to sue over the loss of appointed union employment. Relying on our precedent, the district court (Magistrate Judge Aaron E. Goodstein sitting with consent) held that it does not. But Daniel Vought and Daniel Alexander, former employees of Local 662 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, suggest that rule is wrong. We start with the facts viewed in the light most favorable to their claim.

In 2003, Vought and Alexander worked as appointed business agents for Local 662 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. At the time, James Newell was the Secretary-Treasurer, the union official with the most authority in the Local. But in a matter of months, all three would be on the outside looking in, removed by new leadership that viewed them with suspicion and distrust.

The power shift began in June 2003 with a disagreement over the proper description for a union health plan. The Clark County Sheriff's Department, then affiliated with the Teamsters, was considering jumping ship and choosing the Wisconsin Professional Police Association as its union representative. Robert Russell was the business agent assigned to the sheriff's department, so it fell upon him to dissuade the department from leaving the Teamsters. Allegedly he was overzealous in this task. According to Newell, Russell misrepresented the nature of a union health plan, claiming that it was only available to Teamsters members when that wasn't the case. When Newell caught wind of this, he told Russell to stop, but Russell disagreed that he had done anything wrong and disobeyed the order. On June 27, 2003, Newell, with Vought as a witness, confronted Russell once more and ultimately fired him.

Russell sought review by the Local 662 Executive Board, however, and the termination was reversed-despite Newell and Vought's presence on the panel. In addition to Newell and Vought, the board members who heard the case were President Dave Reardon, Vice President Rick Skutak, Trustees John Kaiser and Vicki Kramer, and Tim Wentz. To call the board polarized would be an understatement, and the issue with Russell was just the starting point.

As it turns out, Newell-with the support of Vought and later Alexander-was on something of a crusade. On July 10, 2003, the same day as the reinstatement hearing, Newell and Vought filed charges of impropriety against Reardon, Skutak, and Kaiser. They also charged Russell for the Clark County affair, and Russell shot back with his own charges against Newell, claiming that Newell had a vendetta against Reardon and tried to compel him (Russell) to say Reardon was the man behind the Clark County incident on pain of losing his job. Because all these charges involved Local 662 officers, the whole mess was submitted to Joint Council 39, and a hearing was scheduled for August 1.

Alexander became involved some two days before the hearing. Fellow business agent Steve Novacek approached Alexander that day bearing a message from Reardon. Alexander was a known ally of Newell and Vought, so Reardon's message was simple: As long as he "kept [his] nose out of the . . . hearing, [he] would be okay." But Alexander ignored this warning and testified on behalf of Newell, supporting his charges against Russell and Reardon. And Vought stood by Newell as well, serving as his hearing representative. At the end of the day, though, the only thing that would come from this aid would be further ostracization; Newell had swiftly become unpopular, and those who had his back were guilty by association.

The Joint Council issued its decision on August 14, 2003, dismissing the charges filed by Newell and Vought and sustaining Russell's charge against Newell. Newell was removed as the Secretary-Treasurer and suspended from membership or employment with the Teamsters for five years. As a result, Reardon became the acting Secretary-Treasurer until the Local 662 Executive Board could meet and decide upon a permanent replacement. Reardon didn't take long to exercise his new-found power. The same day he was tapped for the job, he fired Vought as a business agent. Alexander would be next.

Unlike Vought, however, Alexander was given a chance to save himself. On September 5, 2003, Russell filed a charge against Vought, claiming that Vought should receive further punishment because he was a party to Russell's unwar-ranted termination. Vought asked Alexander for help defending against those charges and-against his self-interest, as we shall see-Alexander agreed. Reardon was upset by this. He called Alexander and told him Vought was quite capable of representing himself, and it would be a "bad idea" to get involved. On September 26, 2003, the Executive Board held a hearing, following which it voted to suspend Vought's membership for two-and-a-half years. The board found that Vought "plainly and willingly participated in 'Newell's cynical efforts to manipulate' the entire situation" involving Russell.

Vought filed an appeal shortly thereafter, and the pressure on Alexander, his confidant, increased. Reardon threatened to fire Alexander if he caught him talking with Vought or Newell about Local business, and another union official (apparently a poker fan) flashed his fist in front of Alexander, telling him to watch out for the "five of clubs." Undeterred, Alexander went on to represent Vought at the appeal proceedings before the Joint Council on January 7, 2004. Reardon was visibly upset when he saw Alexander show up for the hearing; meeting with him the next Monday, Reardon told Alexander he couldn't trust him anymore. So Reardon made Alexander keep a minute-by-minute log of all his work activities, something none of the other union employees had to do, and tacked on other administrative burdens. After a few days of this, Alexander resigned, telling Reardon he could see the "[ ]writing on the wall in that he was setting me up to file internal Union charges against me and/or to terminate my employment." A handful more days saw the Joint Council's decision on appeal. Though Reardon took no part in the decision, the suspension of Vought was approved.

Alexander and Vought filed their complaint in federal court the following year. (Newell joined in the suit but is not a party to the appeal.) Suing under the LMRDA, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. ยง 151 et seq., and Wisconsin law, they claimed, as might be expected, that they were forced out in retaliation for blowing the whistle on union impropriety. The district court ruled largely in favor of the defendants, dismissing the NLRA and state-law claims and all but eliminating the LMRDA claims on summary judgment. The court dismissed ...

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