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Serafinn v. Local 722

March 12, 2010


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 03 C 9409-Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.

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


Before BAUER, EVANS and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

Mark Serafinn sued his local union and the joint council comprising leaders from his and other regional locals. He claimed that they im-paired his free speech and assembly rights, fined him, and suspended his union membership without due process, in violation of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act ("LMRDA") (also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act), 29 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq. The district court granted summary judgment to the joint council, but a jury ruled against the local in favor of Serafinn.

The local appeals its losing jury verdict, arguing that the district court erred in denying it a mixed-motive jury instruction, in instructing the jury to consider witness Timothy Craig's testimony about his DUI conviction for impeachment purposes only, and in instructing the jury not to consider the correctness of the joint council's finding that he had violated the union's work-referral rules. Serafinn cross-appeals the district court's denial of his motion for relief from his summary-judgment loss against the joint council and its reduction of the attorneys' fees award he won against the local.

We have reviewed, for an abuse of discretion, four preserved challenges (a fifth challenge was waived) to the district court's rulings. Finding no prejudicial error, we affirm.


The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is a labor union comprising 1.4 million members, ranging in occupation "from airline pilots to zookeepers." See (visited Feb. 16, 2010). Each member belongs to one of several hundred local unions that maintain substantial independence from the international organization. In regions with three or more locals, joint councils of leaders from those locals are set up to "help solve problems and decide some jurisdictional and judicial matters." Id.

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union ("TDU") is a "well-known and nationally active dissident faction" comprising thousands of Teamsters. Appellee's Br. at 6; see (visited Feb. 16, 2010). In essence, the TDU functions as a rank-and-file political party within the international organization, opposed to the administration currently led by James P. Hoffa. See Appellee's Br. at 7.

Mark Serafinn, a TDU member, served three terms as president of his local union, until he lost to Hoffa sup-porter Steven Mongan in 2001. Serafinn also lost his bid for vice president of his region's joint council, composed solely of Hoffa supporters and led by president Keith Gleason. What happened next forms the nature of this dispute.

As Serafinn tells the story, his TDU politics were more than Hoffa supporters could bear. Mongan and Gleason colluded to have the local union and joint council bring internal disciplinary charges against Serafinn solely because he met with local union executives and published a newsletter accusing Mongan of cronyism, dumbness, and suppression of free speech. Their charges that he violated union rules by referring himself to a coveted power plant job ahead of others on the referral list were unevenly applied, because Hoffa supporters routinely broke the referral rules to reward their cronies with lucrative work without consequence, and baseless, because he visited the job site only for unpaid training. Mongan had told local union members not to show up at the job site just so that Serafinn could be blamed. The people ahead of him on the referral list were not even eligible because they were already working elsewhere, and two of them, including Timothy Craig, were further barred from complaining because they failed to show up at the power plant. The joint council's hearing and review of charges that Serafinn violated the referral rules was a prejudging kangaroo court. The presiding officer Gleason was biased against Serafinn and had colluded with Mongan to bring the charges. Mongan told local union members to testify falsely before the joint council, or else they would lose their jobs. The joint council's order that Serafinn pay restitution and be suspended from the union for six months unjustly penalized Serafinn and chilled union speech.

As the local union and joint council tell the story, Serafinn's rule-breaking greed was more than anyone could bear. Serafinn assigned himself to work, not training, and even if he assigned himself to training, that also violated the referral rules. Referral-eligible, victimized co-workers in the local who should have got the power plant job-not Mongan and Gleason-brought the charges against Serafinn. The local referred the disciplinary proceeding to the joint council only because a majority of officers who would have presided at the local were also witnesses. Serafinn attended the hearing and was permitted to introduce evidence, testify, and cross-examine witnesses. Gleason presided impartially and in accordance with ordinary rules of evidence and procedure. The panel disciplined Serafinn because he deserved it. The decision had nothing to do with Serafinn's politics or exercise of free speech. The work-referral rules applied equally to everyone, especially to Serafinn who was in a unique leadership position at the time as lame-duck president.

The district court awarded summary judgment to the joint council. It found that Serafinn provided insufficient evidence for a jury to find that the joint council was involved in bringing the disciplinary charges against Serafinn, or that the joint council afforded Serafinn anything other than a full and fair hearing. Serafinn v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, Local Union No. 722, No. 03 C 9409, 2007 WL 1670360, at **8, 13 (N.D. Ill. June 5, 2007).

But the district court denied the local's motion for summary judgment, so Serafinn's case against the local went to trial. Before trial, Serafinn proposed a jury instruction that would have required him to establish that retaliation was only a "motivating factor" in the local's decision to prosecute the charges against him. Id. at *7. In response, the local proposed a "mixed-motive" jury instruction patterned after Mount Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287 (1977). In the proposed instruction, the local conceded that Serafinn had the initial burden to show that his exercise of free speech was merely "a motivating factor" in the local's decision to prosecute him, as Serafinn requested. Serafinn, 2007 WL 1670360, at *6. But if the jury found that Serafinn met his burden, then the burden of proof would have shifted to the local to prove that it would have taken the same action even had Serafinn not exercised his free speech, thereby avoiding liability altogether (unlike a typical mixed-motive instruction that limits but does not erase all liability). The district court rejected both parties' instructions, preferring instead a "but-for cause" instruction, which at all times kept the burden on the plaintiff to prove that the local prosecuted him solely because he exercised his free speech.

To begin the trial, Serafinn called Craig as a witness to prove that when Serafinn was at the power plant, Craig was ineligible to work there because he failed to show up. Craig testified that he didn't show up because Serafinn had called him at home and told him not to. Serafinn rebutted that Craig's absence was due to one of his three DUI convictions. Serafinn also argued that one of the later DUI convictions resulted in a revoked driver's license but that the local nevertheless continued to refer driving-related work to him, thus supporting Serafinn's theory that Craig was an individual similarly situated to Serafinn against whom the local selectively declined to enforce the referral rules. Serafinn failed to submit evidence showing that any of Craig's DUI convictions were felonies or involved an act of dishonesty. At the close of trial, the district court instructed the jury to consider "the evidence that Timothy Craig has been convicted of a crime . . . only in deciding whether Timothy Craig's testimony is truthful in whole, in part, or not at all. You may not consider this evidence for any other purpose." Serafinn, 2007 WL 1670360, at *8.

At the close of trial, the district court also issued the following instruction:

And I'm going to read a limiting instruction to you at this point. There have been a number of discussions from the witness stand and questions by these lawyers regarding the charges and the resolution of those charges. And I am instructing you that in a separate proceeding a union body, known as the Joint Council 65, found that the plaintiff violated union referral practices and suspended and fined the plaintiff as a result. That was the union's role. Whether the joint council's decision was correct is not at issue for you in this case. Your role is to determine whether the defendants ...

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