By Whitney Pakalka

On March 10, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case, Groves v. Communication Workers of America. Plaintiffs, employees who were terminated by AT&T based on what were later discovered to be flawed reports, filed suit against AT&T and their union under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. The district court granted the Union’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Plaintiffs had not shown that the Union’s conduct prevented Plaintiffs from exhausting their contractual claims against AT&T under the collective bargaining agreement. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that a hybrid § 301 suit cannot be used to challenge union conduct that, although obstructive, did not contribute to an employee’s failure to exhaust her contractual remedies for the employer’s conduct.

Plaintiffs’ Termination and the Union’s Handling of a Subsequent Settlement Offer

Rebecca Groves and Jonathan Hadden, Plaintiffs, were hired as retail sales consultants for AT&T in Anderson, South Carolina in December 2008. Both Plaintiffs joined the union, Communications Workers of America (“CWA”) and Local 3702 (collectively the “Union”). The Union entered into a collective bargaining agreement with AT&T, under which a formal grievance for an employee’s wrongful discharge or discipline must be submitted by the Union to AT&T in writing within forty-five days of the action complained of. Failure to follow the prescribed grievance procedure results in waiver of the formal grievance by the employee and the Union.

Groves and Hadden were fired in May and June 2012, respectively, but neither of them contacted the Union or filed a grievance. In August 2012, Steve Frost, executive director of labor relations at AT&T, contacted CWA’s administrative director, Betty Witte, to explain that AT&T discovered that reports that led to the termination of sixteen employees, including Plaintiffs, were flawed. Frost asked Witte to contact the terminated employees and offer a settlement of either $2,500 and reinstatement, or $5,000 without reinstatement. Witte then contacted Gerald Souder, a staff representative for CWA, who contacted Les Powell, president of Local 3702, asking him to contact Plaintiffs. Although Local 3702 had Plaintiffs’ contact information on file, Plaintiffs were not contacted because they had not filed grievances or contacted the Union.

Groves and Hadden later learned of the settlement offers, and contacted Souder, who informed them that only the $5,000 offer without reinstatement remained available and they could not file a grievance because the forty-five day limit in the collective bargaining agreement had passed. Plaintiffs filed suit against AT&T and the Union in the District Court for the District of South Carolina, alleging that AT&T breached the collective bargaining agreement between itself and the Union, and that the Union breached its duty of fair representation by failing to inform Plaintiffs of the settlement offers. Plaintiffs and AT&T reached a settlement, and Plaintiffs were reinstated to their former positions in March 2013. The district court granted the Union’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Plaintiffs had not established the threshold requirement for a § 301 action, which requires that the Union’s breach of duty prevent Plaintiffs from exhausting their claims under the collective bargaining agreement

Actions Under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act 

Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act allows “[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization,” but usually requires that an employee first exhaust contractual remedies in that agreement. However in a “hybrid § 301” action, an employee may file suit without exhausting all contractual remedies by showing that the union breached its duty of fair representation and that her employer violated the collective bargaining agreement. Thompson v. Aluminum Co. of Am., 276 F.3d 651, 656 (4th Cir. 2002). A union breaches its duty of fair representation if its actions are arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. Air Line Pilots Ass’n, Int’l v. O’Neill, 499 U.S. 65, 67 (1991).

Hybrid § 301 actions exist in order to avoid “unacceptable injustice” that would occur if an employee had to exhaust all contractual remedies even when the union representing her in the grievance procedure acted in such a way as to breach its duty of fair representation. The Supreme Court has held that the hybrid § 301 action is appropriate when an employee cannot exhaust contractual remedies because “the union has sole power under the contract to invoke . . . the grievance procedure” and the employee “has been prevented from exhausting his contractual remedies by the union’s wrongful refusal to process the grievance.” Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 185 (1967).

Fourth Circuit Holds that a Union’s Breach of Duty Must Inhibit Employee’s Ability to Exhaust Contractual Remedies

The Fourth Circuit reasoned that requiring a causal nexus between a union’s breach of its duty of fair representation and the plaintiff’s failure to exhaust her contractual remedies was consistent with other circuits and the Supreme Court’s articulation of the hybrid § 301 claim’s purpose. The court reasoned that it was “a safeguard for wronged employees whose unions fail to assert [their] rights,” and that to allow a hybrid § 301 claim where the union did not impact the employee’s ability to pursue contractual remedies would convert it into “a tool to bypass the normal exhaustion rule . . . any time employees also have some unrelated claim against their union.”

The Court noted that Plaintiffs did not allege that the Union’s conduct had prevented them from filing a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement, and that because they did not file a grievance with the Union, the Union did not know they were terminated until after the contractual period for filing a grievance had passed. Although the Fourth Circuit described the Union’s conduct as “irresponsible at best, and certainly prevented Plaintiffs’ from accepting AT&T’s original reinstatement offer,” the court found that Plaintiffs had waived their right to grieve and were thus not entitled to that offer. The court found that because the Union’s conduct “had nothing to do with their failure to vindicate their rights through the contractually designated procedure,” allowing Plaintiffs to bypass the usual requirements of § 301 would be inappropriate, and accordingly affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

The Fourth Circuit did not foreclose the possibility that an employee could bring a hybrid § 301 claim without first attempting to file a grievance, noting that where an employee’s failure to invoke the grievance process was caused by the union’s breach of duty, a hybrid § 301 claim “might well be viable.” Additionally, the court noted that its holding did not leave Plaintiffs without a remedy, because they could have brought a stand-along claim against the Union for breach of its duty of fair representation.

Fourth Circuit Affirmed the Grant of Summary Judgment in Favor of the Union

The Court found that Plaintiffs’ failure to file a grievance was not caused by the Union’s failure to contact them about a settlement offer made by AT&T after the company discovered that it had terminated Plaintiffs based on flawed reports. Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendant-Union because any breach of the Union’s duty of fair representation did not contribute to Plaintiffs’ failure to exhaust their contractual remedies under the collective bargaining agreement.