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Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 31, 2017

BROTHERHOOD OF LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEERS AND TRAINMENT, GENERAL COMMITTEE OF ADJUSTMENT, UNION PACIFIC WESTERN LINES AND PACIFIC HARBOR LINES, Plaintiff,
v.
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD CO., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John Robert Blakey United States District Judge.

         This dispute concerns the dismissal of R.J. Griff (“Griff”), a former employee with Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company (“Defendant” or “Union Pacific”). Griff, through his representatives at Plaintiff Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, General Committee of Adjustment, Union Pacific Western Lines and Pacific Harbor Lines (“Plaintiff” or “BLET”), contended that his dismissal from Union Pacific was procedurally improper and submitted this dispute to the First Division of the National Railroad Adjustment Board (the “Board” or “NRAB”). The Board ultimately denied Plaintiff's claim and upheld his termination.

         In response to the Board's decision, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit, bringing claims pursuant to the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. (“RLA”), and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. [1] at 5-7. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and, for the reasons explained below, Defendant's motion [20] is granted while Plaintiff's motion [14] is denied.

         I. Background[1]

         From 1984 through 2005, Griff was a “craft” employee at Union Pacific represented by BLET, eventually becoming a Locomotive Engineer. [23] at 2. When he was a Locomotive Engineer, the terms and conditions of Griff's employment were governed by the parties' collective bargaining agreements. Id. at 6. Two particular provisions of the collective bargaining agreements are salient here: the “Discipline Rule” and “Article 9” (collectively, the “CBA Provisions”). Id. at 6-7.

         A. The CBA Provisions

         Under the Discipline Rule, “Locomotive Engineers will not be disciplined without first being given a fair and impartial investigation.” [12-1] at 135. Practically, this provision guarantees that a Locomotive Engineer: (1) will be apprised “of the specific charges against him or her”; (2) is entitled to “representation by a [BLET] representative” in a “recorded and transcribed” investigatory hearing; (3) will be “afforded the opportunity to examine or cross examine all witnesses” who testify at the investigatory hearing; and (4) will receive Union Pacific's written decision on the merits within ten days of the investigatory hearing. [25] at 2-3 (citing [12-1] at 135-37). If the Locomotive Engineer disagrees with Union Pacific's disciplinary decision, BLET may challenge it through the CBA's grievance-and-appeal process and the RLA, culminating in binding arbitration before the Board. Id. at 3.

         Article 9, meanwhile, provides that any employee (including any Locomotive Engineer) promoted to a supervisory position after July 1995 can either: (1) continue to “accumulate seniority [in their original craft position] so long as he/she pays a fee [to BLET] no greater than the applicable current membership dues”; or (2) decline to pay a fee to BLET, in which case “he/she shall retain but cease to accumulate seniority” in their original craft position. Id. at 4; see also [12-1] at 132.

         B. Griff's Promotion and Termination

         In December 2005, Griff was promoted by Union Pacific to “Manager of Operating Practices.” [16] at 2. In September 2011, Union Pacific promoted Griff again, this time to “Manager of Road Operations.” Id. The parties agree that both of these positions are “supervisory” and “at-will, ” such that they “are not covered by any collective bargaining agreement between the parties.” [23] at 2. Griff nevertheless elected, pursuant to Article 9, to continue to pay BLET dues, and he accordingly continued to accrue seniority as a Locomotive Engineer while working in a supervisory capacity. Id. at 3.

         In an announcement dated August 12, 2012, Union Pacific's former Chief Operating Officer Lance Fritz advised supervisory employees (including Griff) that any “non-agreement employee who knowingly provides false information and/or who willingly fabricates reporting will be terminated from the Company-employees who have seniority will not be allowed to return to their seniority.” [12-1] at 2-3; [23-1] at 5.

         On February 27, 2013, Union Pacific terminated Griff's employment “for falsifying performance evaluations and check rides of employees.” [12-1] at 3, 106. On April 1, 2013, Plaintiff appealed Griff's termination by way of a letter to Union Pacific's Assistant Director of Labor Relations. Id. at 112-15. BLET challenged Union Pacific's termination of Griff on two separate grounds. First, Plaintiff argued that, as a dues-paying BLET member, he could not be fired absent the “fair and impartial” investigatory hearing described in the Discipline Rule. Id. Plaintiff further contended that Griff had the right to exercise his seniority privileges as a Locomotive Engineer under Article 9. Id.

         Union Pacific denied Plaintiff's appeal eleven days later. Id. at 117. Defendant explained that Griff “was not part of a collective bargaining unit or covered by a collective bargaining agreement at the time of his discharge.” Id. Accordingly, Union Pacific “had no obligation to hold an investigative hearing or permit Mr. Griff to exercise his seniority to an agreement position.” Id.

         In September 2013, Plaintiff filed its Notice of Intent to appeal Union Pacific's decision to the Board. Id. at 35.

         C. The Board's Decision

         In its submission to the Board, Plaintiff insisted that, under “the plain contractual language” of the CBA Provisions, he was entitled to both a full investigatory hearing and reinstatement as a Locomotive Engineer. See generally Id . at 89-104 (“So long as an employee holds seniority under a collectively bargained agreement, he cannot be ‘at-will.' . . . The Carrier breached the contract by failing to provide the Claimant and the Organization notice and an investigation hearing.”). Union Pacific predictably disagreed, arguing that Griff's employment was not “governed by the provisions of the Engineer's collective bargaining agreement, ” such that he “was not due a hearing nor does he have the right to exercise his seniority back to the craft.” Id. at 9.

         On January 28, 2016, the Board denied BLET's claim and upheld Griff's termination. See generally Id . at 1-6. In reaching its decision, the Board first quoted directly from Article 9. Id. at 2. The Board then explained that its interpretation of Article 9 was informed by its own arbitral precedent, as this was “not a case of first impression” for “either the Board or these Parties.” Id. at 3. In fact, “several” cases previously decided by the Board held that “covered employees who are promoted to management positions, but continue to accrue craft seniority, may be terminated while performing their management duties for engaging in wrongdoing without resort to their contractual due process protections.” Id.

         The Board also noted that its earlier decisions were animated by cogent policy concerns also present here:

If the Carrier has terminated a non-covered employee for cause, and did this unilaterally, this employee, even if he possesses seniority in a contractually covered craft, may not then seek to invoke the contractual protection that inheres to members of his craft. This is so because when the Carrier permanently terminated the non-bargaining unit employee from service for cause, the Carrier severed the employment relationship permanently, albeit unilaterally, and this employee, although he retained seniority in a covered craft, cannot invoke the contractual protection of that craft, because at this time he was no longer an employee. The employee relationship having been irrevocably ended for cause, there is no longer any valid basis upon which the employee's seniority can operate. The Board is led to this ...

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