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Staudner v. Robinson Aviation, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

July 21, 2017




         This matter is before the Court on defendant Robinson Aviation's ("RVA") motion to dismiss [DE 74] and defendant Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization's ("PATCO") motion to dismiss [DE 78]. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication. A hearing on these motions was held on June 20, 2017, in Raleigh, North Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, PATCO's motion to dismiss is granted and RVA's motion to dismiss is denied.


         Plaintiff is a former air traffic control specialist at the New Bern, North Carolina airport who has filed this suit against his labor union, Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, and former employer, Robinson Aviation, Inc. Plaintiff was employed by Robinson Aviation from October 20, 2000 to November 20, 2014. Plaintiff alleges that he was falsely accused of not following policies in order to terminate his employment. Plaintiff contends that his employer engaged in multiple breaches of the collective bargaining agreement, including termination of plaintiffs employment without just cause, and that PATCO breached its duty of fair representation when it declined to pursue plaintiffs grievance to arbitration on plaintiffs behalf.

         Plaintiff alleges that defendants' actions or omissions were in violation of Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185.

         On July 29, 2016, the Court denied the defendants' Rule 56 motions regarding the Section 301 claim after finding a genuine issue of material fact on whether PATCO's decision not to pursue plaintiffs grievance to arbitration was arbitrary or was done in bad faith. [DE 65 at 3-6]. However, the Court granted defendant RVA's Rule 56 motion as to plaintiffs common law claim against RVA for allegedly breaching their employment agreement because federal labor law preempted the cause of action. [DE 65 at 7], On November 18, 2016, defendant RVA filed a motion to dismiss the remaining claim against it, arguing that it was prepared to tender a make-whole offer in the amount of $9, 250 to plaintiff, which it argued was the full amount of damages that could be assessed against it. [DE 74]. On December 9, PATCO also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because plaintiff failed as a matter of law to exhaust the remedies available to him under the collective bargaining agreement. [DE 78].


         The Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") provides that "suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees" may be brought in federal district court. 28 U.S.C. § 185(a). Because plaintiff was represented by. a union pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement ("CB A") during his employment, plaintiff may not sue his former employer for violation of the CBA unless he can also show that his union breached its duty of fair representation; this is commonly referred to as a hybrid 301 action. Thompson v. Aluminum Co. of Am., 276 F.3d 651, 656 (4th Cir. 2002) ("in order to prevail on the merits against either party, an employee must prove both 1) that the union breached its duty of fair representation and 2) that his employer violated the collective bargaining agreement."). Plaintiff must prevail first on his claim against the union before his claim against his former employer may be considered. Id. at 657.

         In such a "hybrid" action, "the two claims are inextricably interdependent." DelCostello v. Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151, 164 (1983). In a "hybrid" action whose underlying claim is wrongful discharge, "[t]o prevail against either the company or the Union, .. . [plaintiffs] must not only show that their discharge was contrary to the contract but must also carry the burden of demonstrating a breach of duty by the Union." Id. at 194 (quoting United Parcel Serv., Inc. v. Mitchell, 451 U.S. 56, 66-67 (1983)). Liability in these types of labor cases is to be apportioned between the employer and the union according to the damages caused by their relative fault. Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 197 (1966). Damages attributable solely to the employer's breach of contract should not be charged to the union, but increases if any in those damages caused by the union's refusal to process the grievance should not be charged to the employer. Bowen v. United States Postal Serv., 459 U.S. 212, 223 (1983).

         The Supreme Court instructs that, where a collective bargaining agreement establishes a grievance procedure, "[a]n employer cannot be held liable for breach of a collective bargaining agreement unless it can be shown that the employee unsuccessfully sought relief through the union grievance procedure." Vaca, 386 U.S. at 185. Under this principle, if it is undisputed that an employee did not attempt to first resolve the dispute via the grievance process, he cannot sue his employer for any alleged breach of the collective bargaining agreement, and consequently cannot sue his union for any alleged breach of the duty of fair representation. See Nat. Post Office Mail Handlers Local No. 305, LIUNA, AFL-CIO v. U.S. Postal Serv., 594 F.2d 988, 991 (4th Cir. 1979) ("It is a well-established principle of labor law that a union and its members must exhaust the remedies provided in their collective bargaining agreement with the employer before they seek judicial intervention."); Amburgey v. Consolidation Coal Co., 923 F.2d 27, 29-30 (4th Cir. 1991); Weitzel v. Portney, 548 F.2d 489, 493 (4th Cir. 1977); Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 595 (3d Cir. 2005).

         Courts have recognized this exhaustion requirement because "national labor policy ... encourages private rather than judicial resolution of disputes arising over collective-bargaining agreements." Clayton v. Int'l Union, United Auto., Aerospace, & Agr. Implement Workers of Am., 451 U.S. 679, 689 (1981). "A contrary rule which would permit an individual employee to completely sidestep available grievance procedures in favor of a lawsuit has little to commend it. . . . [I]t would deprive employer and union of the ability to establish a uniform and exclusive method for orderly settlement of employee grievances. . . . [a]nd would inevitably exert a disruptive influence upon both the negotiation and administration of collective agreements." Republic Steel Corp. v. Maddox, 379 U.S. 650, 653 (1965) (internal quotations omitted). As the Supreme Court has further explained in a subsequent case:

Where internal union appeals procedures can result in either complete relief to an aggrieved employee or reactivation of his grievance, exhaustion would advance the national labor policy of encouraging private resolution of contractual labor disputes. In such cases, the internal union procedures are capable of fully resolving meritorious claims short of the judicial forum. Thus, if the employee received the full relief he requested through internal procedures, his § 301 action would become moot, and he would not be entitled to a judicial hearing. Similarly, if the employee obtained reactivation of his grievance through internal union procedures, the policies underlying Republic Steel would come into play, and the employee would be required to submit his claim to the collectively bargained dispute-resolution procedures. In either case, exhaustion of internal remedies could result in final resolution of the employee's contractual grievance through private rather than judicial avenues.

Clayton, 451 U.S. at 692.

         Both defendants have filed motions to dismiss. PATCO has moved to dismiss plaintiffs complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the matter because of plaintiff s failure to exhaust his remedies under the CBA. Because ...

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