Labor & Employment Law Daily Union employees allegedly mistreated by president have LMRDA, Title VII claims tossed
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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Union employees allegedly mistreated by president have LMRDA, Title VII claims tossed

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Emphasizing the distinction between an individual’s status as a union member and status as a union employee, a federal district court in Kentucky tossed claims by two Teamsters Local 651 employees that the Local and its president violated the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) when one was fired and the other was told to stay out of politics. The challenged actions did not affect their status as union members so the LMRDA was not implicated. The claim that the president created a hostile work environment also failed, but they did raise triable issues on whether the defendants violated the FLSA by requiring that they work overtime without pay. One plaintiff could also proceed on her defamation claim based on the president’s statements accusing her of financial improprieties. The court dismissed all claims against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), though, because there was no evidence that it ratified or participated in the alleged misconduct and IBT was not an “employer” of the plaintiffs (Clark v. Teamsters Local Union 651, October 24, 2018, Reeves, D.).

The two plaintiffs were union members who also worked for Teamsters Local 651. One was a finance and benefits coordinator who paid IBT dues until she was terminated in March 2017. The other was a dues coordinator who paid her dues through June 2017; she resigned in May 2018.

Local president’s hostility. According to the plaintiffs, Local 651’s president used derogatory language against women and commented on their appearances. In addition, the dues coordinator alleged that he kissed her on the check, asked her to sit on his lap, and called her “mom.” The plaintiffs also claimed that if they disregarded orders, he used profanities and they were fearful he would take a personnel action against them (he had discretion to decide when they could take leave and approved overtime pay). The hostility escalated in June 2016, after the president allegedly cursed at the benefits coordinator after she refused his request to modify his 401(k) contributions in an effort to hide money from his wife, whom he was divorcing.

Plaintiffs’ complaints and president’s response. After this exchange, in June 2016, the benefits coordinator wrote to the Local 651 Executive Board describing the hostility. The president allegedly responded by verbally attacking her in front of other Local 651 officials. The plaintiffs subsequently met with Board personnel, providing information on the alleged 401(k) scheme and other improprieties. In October, the benefits coordinator sent a letter to the membership, describing the situation and alleged retaliation, defamation, and other wrongdoings.

Meanwhile, the president purportedly suspected financial improprieties by the benefits coordinator and posted a letter on the Local secretary’s door alleging as much in August 2016. He made similar accusations about her to the Board in September. Though the Board issued a statement that no financial impropriety had occurred, he continued to make allegations. He also made comments that both plaintiffs were having personal relationships with male employees.

IBT’s audit. IBT became involved in the dispute in September 2016, when a business agent wrote to IBT about the problems at Local 651. IBT sent a representative and audited Local 651 in early 2017, finding no malfeasance by the benefits coordinator. The dues coordinator wrote to the IBT rep in April, stating she was afraid of retaliation by the Local’s president, who told her to stay out of office politics. The IBT rep met with the dues coordinator but the benefits coordinator had been terminated in March, so he did not meet with her.

Lawsuit. The plaintiffs filed suit against Local 651, the president, and IBT, claiming violations of the LMRDA, FLSA, Title VII, and Kentucky wage and hour statutes, as well as common law claims of defamation and invasion of privacy. The defendants moved for summary judgment.

LMRDA claims against Local 651 and president. Reviewing the LMRDA claims, the court explained that Section 609 makes it unlawful for a labor organization to fine, suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline a member for exercising any right she is entitled to under the Act. However, this applies to retaliation affecting the rights or status as a union member, not to a person’s status as a union employee. Also, the Sixth Circuit has consistently maintained the distinction between an individual’s role as a member of a union and his or her role as an employee or officer.

Here, the plaintiffs claimed Section 609 was violated when the benefits coordinator was fired and when the dues coordinator was told to stay out of “politics.” But they were not subjected to internal disciplinary procedures or any international union charges that would have led to termination of their memberships, and they provided no support for their claim that they lost their memberships as a result of their employment with the union ending. Because status as a union member is distinct from status as a union employee, the termination of employment alone did not violate the LMRDA, explained the court. Furthermore, the evidence indicated their union memberships were voluntarily terminated when the benefits coordinator stopped paying her dues for three months and when the dues coordinator resigned and requested a voluntary withdrawal card. For these reasons, summary judgment was granted on their LMRDA Section 609 claim.

The defendants’ motion was also granted against their claim under Section 102, which provides a right of action for union members whose rights were infringed, including discharge as “part of a purposeful and deliberate attempt to . . . suppress dissent within the union.” As to this claim, despite the plaintiffs’ testimony regarding internal strife within Local 651, they failed to offer sufficient evidence of a deliberate scheme to suppress dissent within the union.

FLSA claim. The plaintiffs claimed they were forced to work overtime without pay; they would clock out and keep working or would deliver packages on the way home. They provided time cards reflecting that they worked more than 40 hours a week but were not paid overtime. Though the defendants argued that the time worked over 40 hours was de minimis, it was up to the fact-finder to decide that issue. And while the defendants also argued that the plaintiffs did not follow the procedure for requesting overtime pay, the court found triable issues on whether the defendants knew of the uncompensated time based on the time cards and deposition testimony. Summary judgment was therefore denied on the FLSA and state-law claims for unpaid overtime.

Invasion of privacy. After the dues coordinator was terminated, Local 651’s administrative assistant used a lost password function to change the coordinator’s passwords on her Local 651 email account and Dropbox account (which she tied to her work email). The assistant searched the accounts, which contained work-related and personal documents. Though the dues coordinator believed the assistant “hacked” her account and invaded her privacy, the court found that she could not prevail on her theories because “an employee does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in emails sent or received using a work email address.” Even if she did have such an expectation, Local 651 had a legitimate business purpose to recover documents related to its operations from her email and Dropbox account, said the court, granting summary judgment on the invasion of privacy claim.

Claims against IBT fail. Noting that an international union and its affiliated local unions are legally distinct entities and are not treated the same for liability purposes, the court held that IBT should be dismissed because there was no evidence that it instigated, participated, or ratified the challenged actions of Local 651. The plaintiffs claimed they ratified the president’s actions by failing to help with their complaints, but the failure to act was not enough to ratify a local’s actions, so IBT did not violate the LMRDA. Nor was there any evidence suggesting IBT ratified the alleged invasion of privacy. The court also rejected their argument that Local 651 and IBT were joint employers or a single employer for purposes of liability and counting the number of employees working at Local 651. And because IBT did not meet the definition of “employer” under the FLSA or state wage-hour law, those claims were also dismissed with respect to IBT.

Defamation claims. Local 651 and its president allegedly defamed the plaintiffs by publishing false statements that the benefits coordinator committed financial improprieties and that they both had romantic relationships with male coworkers. The claims concerning relationships failed on several grounds, including that the dues coordinator never denied she had a relationship with her male coworker and the benefits coordinator provided no evidence of a reputational injury. On the statements about financial improprieties, however, the benefits coordinator raised triable issues. Statements about unfitness to perform one’s job are actionable per se defamation, and though the president’s statements were protected by a qualified privilege because they were made in the employment context, the plaintiffs raised triable issues on whether he abused the privilege by speaking with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statements.

No Title VII claim. Granting summary judgment against the Title VII hostile work environment claim, the court found that the comments allegedly made by Local 651’s president were not severe or pervasive. The plaintiffs alleged only isolated instances of being called “bitch;” of the president saying a work event dress code was “Victoria’s Secret nighties;” of men wearing women’s clothing at a golf game; and of one plaintiff being called “mom,” kissed on the check, and invited to go horseback or motorcycle riding. Those incidents, taken together, were simply not enough to support the Title VII claim.

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