Durham School Services LP v. General Drivers Warehousemen
UNPUBLISHED PER CURIAM OPINION filed. Originating case number: 2:14-cv-01241-DCN. Copies to all parties and the district court/agency. . [15-1924]
Pg: 1 of 13
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
DURHAM SCHOOL SERVICES LP,
Plaintiff - Appellant,
GENERAL DRIVERS WAREHOUSEMEN AND HELPERS LOCAL UNION
NO 509, a/w International Brotherhood of Teamsters,
Defendant – Appellee,
PIEDMONT GRIEVANCE COMMITTEE; TOM HOUVOURAS; WAYNE
Third Party Defendants.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at
Charleston. David C. Norton, District Judge. (2:14-cv-01241-DCN)
Argued: December 6, 2016
Before WILKINSON, AGEE, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.
Affirmed by unpublished per curiam opinion.
Decided: February 15, 2017
Pg: 2 of 13
Charles Preyer Roberts, III, CONSTANGY, BROOKS, SMITH & PROPHETE, LLC,
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for Appellant.
Jonathan G. Axelrod, BEINS,
AXELROD, P.C., Washington, D.C., for Appellee.
Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.
Pg: 3 of 13
After concluding that a regional grievance committee’s decision “drew its essence
from” and was “arguably construing or applying” a collective bargaining agreement
Warehousemen and Helpers, Local Union No. 509 (“the Union”), the district court held
that the decision in favor of the Union was enforceable. J.A. 738. Consequently, it
denied Durham’s motion for summary judgment, granted the Union’s motion for the
same, and entered judgment in favor of the Union. Durham now appeals. For the
reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the district court.
Durham “provid[es] bus transportation to students in Charleston County,” South
Carolina. J.A. 726. In 2013, video surveillance footage captured a Durham employee—
bus driver Marquette Alston—using her cell phone on the job. Under the collective
bargaining agreement (“Agreement”) governing Alston’s employment, Durham could
bypass the usual progressive discipline procedure and immediately discharge bus drivers
after the first offense for “use of personal items such as cell phones while operating a
passenger transport vehicle.” J.A. 86–87. Upon learning of Alston’s cell-phone usage,
Durham notified Alston that it was terminating her employment.
Alston followed the Agreement’s grievance procedure, arguing that she had been
unjustly terminated because mitigating circumstances made a lesser punishment more
appropriate. After her grievance was denied in the initial local stages, she pursued the
Pg: 4 of 13
next step authorized under the Agreement, referring her “unjust termination” to the
Piedmont Grievance Committee (the “Committee”), a regional authority comprised of
representatives from participating employers and unions. J.A. 279.
The Committee meets regularly to hear disputes among its members; it sits in
panels consisting of a minimum of two employer and two union representatives who are
not affiliated with the aggrieved parties.
Because Alston’s grievance involved a
termination of employment, the Committee’s bylaws provided that Durham would
present any evidence relevant to its case first, “after which [the Union] shall present [its]
version of [the] controversy. Each party shall then be allowed one (1) rebuttal.” J.A.
In presenting its case-in-chief before the Committee, Durham called several
witnesses to describe the Agreement, Alston’s offense, and the decision to terminate
Alston’s employment. It also showed the video footage of Alston using her cell phone on
After Durham closed its case, the Committee panel invited the Union to present its
case. Instead, the Union raised a point of order asserting that Durham “never presented a
discharge letter. . . . This panel . . . has made these rulings [in prior Committee cases] that
if there is no [discharge letter] presented[,] there is no discharge. That’s the Point of
Order.” J.A. 324.
Durham replied that it had not presented the letter because “[n]obody denies that
[Alston] was discharged” in accordance with the Agreement. J.A. 325. Durham offered
to produce the termination letter immediately, if the Committee wanted a copy. A
Pg: 5 of 13
Committee panel member questioned Durham, confirming that the employer had a copy
of the Committee’s rules and procedures and that it was “aware that [it’s] able to present
any and all evidence in support of [its] case to the Committee.” J.A. 326. Durham
replied that although it was aware of the Committee’s bylaws, it did not read them to
require the presentation of undisputed evidence such as the letter terminating Alston’s
The Committee panel broke for an executive session and returned the following
decision: “[T]he Point of Order by the Union is upheld. Fee Company.” J.A. 328.
When Durham did not reinstate Alston after the Committee rendered its decision,
the Union contacted the Committee and asked it to document what the prior ruling meant.
Two Committee members, one a panel member and one a non-panel member who served
as the Committee’s co-Chairman, responded, stating that the Union had prevailed.
Durham filed a complaint against the Union in the U.S. District Court for the
District of South Carolina seeking to bar enforcement of the Committee’s decision as a
violation of § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1959, 29 U.S.C. § 185.
Durham maintained that the Committee’s decision “ignored the plain language of the
[Agreement], disregarded the [Committee’s] own By-Laws, and failed to draw its essence
from the” Agreement and bylaws. J.A. 18. It also asserted that the Committee acted in
bad faith and had denied Durham “a fundamentally fair hearing.” J.A. 18. The Union
filed a counterclaim seeking enforcement of the Committee’s decision.
Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. In support of its motion, the
Union submitted depositions from two Committee panel members: Roosevelt A. Via (a
Pg: 6 of 13
union member) and Thomas L. Houvouras (an employer member). Both panel members
described prior Committee rulings that had been decided on similar points of order,
where no discharge letter had been made part of the employer’s case. Via explained that
in this case, because Durham was the moving party in a case involving “unjust
termination,” the letter of termination should have been presented as part of its case. He
stated that during their deliberation of the grievance, the panel members had discussed
their understanding of the Committee bylaws and the role that the Committee’s past
decisions should play in their decision-making process, observing that “if the union
brought a case [to the Committee] that did not have a grievance in it, . . . the union would
get the same ruling, because the grievance itself is the moving part of the grievance
Just like the termination letter would have been the moving part of the
company’s process.” J.A. 240. In addition, both panel members explained that the focus
of the point of order is to raise a procedural objection, and that the letter should have been
part of Durham’s case-in-chief; the panel did not allow Durham to submit the letter after
the point of order had been made because it was too late to do so then.
The district court granted the Union’s motion, first setting out its highly
deferential standard of review and then concluding that the Committee panel members’
deposition testimony “provided a basis in the by-laws and the [Agreement] for the
[Committee’s] decision to uphold the Union’s point of order and reinstate Alston.” J.A.
738. In sum, the district court held that because the Committee was “arguably construing
or applying the contract and acting within the scope of [its] authority,” the Committee’s
decision “draws its essence from the [Agreement] and [Committee] by-laws.” J.A. 738.
Pg: 7 of 13
As such, the court concluded the Committee’s decision was enforceable and it entered
judgment in favor of the Union.
Durham noted a timely appeal, and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.
On appeal, Durham continues to argue that the Committee’s decision is
unenforceable because it decided an issue not submitted to it, that it denied Durham a fair
hearing in accordance with the Agreement and Committee bylaws, and it issued a
decision that contradicts the Agreement’s plain language allowing Durham to terminate
Alston’s employment. We review the district court’s grant of summary judgment de
novo, applying the same standard as the district court. Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, 789
F.3d 389, 395 (4th Cir. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts
in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (Durham), “there is no genuine
dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
See id.; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). We also review the district court’s determination
of whether the Committee exceeded the scope of its authority de novo, as that is a
question of law. See Island Creek Coal Co. v. District 28, UMWA, 29 F.3d 126, 129 (4th
That said, our review of the Committee’s conduct is much narrower. Out of
respect for parties’ mutually bargained-for terms of a collective bargaining agreement
and recognizing the efficiency and finality of the labor negotiation process, courts take a
very deferential approach to reviewing decisions arising out of that process. Although
Pg: 8 of 13
the referral to the Committee is not identical to arbitration, because the Agreement
specified that the parties would be bound by any non-deadlocked decision of the
Committee, the Court approaches the Committee’s decision in the same way it would an
arbitration award. Int’l Longshoremen’s Ass’n v. Cataneo, Inc., 990 F.2d 794, 799 n.11
(4th Cir. 1993) (“A grievance committee’s decision is entitled to substantial deference,
similar to that of an arbitration award, and cannot be overturned as long as it is based
upon some support in the record.”).
Consequently, our review of the Committee’s decision in this case is “severely
limited” and “among the narrowest known to the law.” District 17, UMW v. Island Creek
Coal Co., 179 F.3d 133, 136-37 (4th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). In
particular, “courts are not authorized to reconsider the merits of [a decision] even though
the parties may allege that the [decision] rests on errors of fact or on misinterpretation of
the contract.” United States v. Paperworker’s Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 36
(1987). “[A]s long as the [Committee] is even arguably construing or applying the
contract and acting within the scope of [its] authority, that a court is convinced [it]
committed serious error does not suffice to overturn [its] decision.” Id. at 38. We will
only vacate the Committee’s decision if “it violates clearly established public policy, fails
to draw its essence from the collective bargaining agreement, or reflects merely the
[decision-maker’s] personal notions of right and wrong.” Yuasa, Inc. v. Int’l Union of
Elec., Elec., Salaried, Mach. & Furniture Workers, 224 F.3d 316, 321 (4th Cir. 2000).
Absent evidence that the Committee flouted its contracted-for responsibilities to
Pg: 9 of 13
adjudicate disputes under the Agreement, the Court must affirm the Committee’s
With these principles in mind, we turn to Durham’s arguments. At the outset, the
Committee did not act beyond the scope of the grievance before it. The referral was
broadly worded, listing the grievance to be decided by the Committee as Alston’s “unjust
termination.” J.A. 279. Just as broadly, the referral cited “Article 20 and all applicable
articles” of the Agreement as the provisions that had been violated. J.A. 279. Article 20
covers employee discipline, and includes everything from the progressive disciplinary
system and conduct for which an individual can be discharged based on the first offense
to the procedure for notifying employees and the Union of disciplinary action, including
termination of employment. Regardless of the parties’ understanding of their dispute, the
referred grievance encompassed the entirety of Alston’s termination of employment. The
Committee thus acted within the scope of its authority to resolve the submitted grievance
when it determined that absent a letter of termination, Durham could not prove its casein-chief and the Union should prevail on its point of order.
Durham next contends the Committee denied it a fair hearing by disregarding the
Agreement and the Committee bylaws, and by requiring Durham to do something the text
of those provisions did not plainly demand. We disagree. The Committee’s decision
draws its essence from the parties’ Agreement. Article 12 of the Agreement states that
unresolved grievances will be submitted to the Committee and that the Committee’s
decision will be “final and binding.” J.A. 80. It further notes that grievances will be
“heard in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of” the Committee, and it is not
Pg: 10 of 13
disputed that these Rules of Procedure are the Committee’s bylaws. J.A. 80. Article VII
of the Committee bylaws, in turn, allow parties to “present any evidence bearing on the
facts of a particular case” in their case-in-chief, after which the other side presents its
case, followed by one rebuttal each. J.A. 101. The bylaws instruct the panel chairman to
“maintain order and make final rulings on all Points of Order, consistent with” Robert’s
Rules of Order. J.A. 102. And the Committee’s decision must be made “based on the
pertinent facts presented by the parties.” J.A. 102. Nothing in what occurred below
violates this process.
The parties submitted the matter of Alston’s unjust termination to the Committee.
Consistent with its bylaws, the Committee allowed Durham to present the totality of its
case-in-chief. It then proceeded to allow the Union to have its turn, but instead, the
Union raised a point of order challenging the sufficiency of Durham’s case-in-chief.
Points of order are a recognized procedural practice expressly authorized (though not
detailed) in the Committee bylaws. That point of order halted the proceedings and
required a ruling before continuing. As it so happened, ruling on the point of order
resolved the dispute submitted to the Committee as to whether there was an unjust
termination. That the Committee’s decision was based on a procedural ruling following
its conclusion that Durham had failed to prove a necessary part of its case does not mean
that the Committee’s decision or process was fundamentally unfair or ignored either the
Agreement or the Committee’s bylaws.
At bottom, Durham disagrees with the
Committee’s interpretation and application of the rules governing its hearing, but it has
Pg: 11 of 13
not shown that the Committee was not attempting to construe and apply those rules.
Absent such proof, its argument fails.
The depositions from Committee panel members Via and Houvouras confirm our
assessment that the Committee’s decision was based on its understanding and
interpretation of the Agreement and Committee bylaws. They also confirm that the
Committee was acting in accord with its past interpretation of similar points of order.
Even if the Court were to disagree with the Committee’s interpretation, we cannot
conclude that the Committee panel was enforcing its own “notions of industrial justice”
or “right and wrong” rather than attempting to construe the Agreement and its
incorporated rules. E.g., Misco, 484 U.S. at 38 (recounting that our review is for whether
the decisionmaker was “even arguably construing or applying the contract”);
Mountaineer Gas Co. v. Oil, Chem. & Atomic Workers Int'l Union, 76 F.3d 606, 608 (4th
Cir. 1996) (emphasizing that the Court’s review is to “determine only whether the
arbitrator did his job—not whether he did it well, correctly, or reasonably, but simply
whether he did it”).
The record also belies Durham’s contention that the entire Committee “process
was permeated by bad faith.” Appellant’s Opening Br. 23. The crux of Durham’s
argument on this point is that the Committee improperly adjudicated the case by means of
a procedural ruling that in turn was based on an unwritten interpretation of its bylaws.
But it would be impossible for a collective bargaining agreement and other rules
governing arbitration-like proceedings to contemplate every possible scenario. Once the
matter was referred to the Committee, the Committee had to interpret and apply the
Pg: 12 of 13
governing written rules. Consistent with this understanding, the Supreme Court has
expressly recognized that in carrying out its duties an arbitrator—or, as here, the
Committee—is “‘not confined to the express provisions of the contract,’ but may also
look to other sources—including the ‘industrial common law’—for help in construing the
agreement.” Nat’l Postal Mail Handlers Union v. Am. Postal Workers Union, 589 F.3d
437, 443 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (quoting United Steelworkers of Am. v. Warrior & Gulf
Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 581–82 (1960)); see also Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel
& Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593, 597 (1960) (stating that arbitrators may “look for guidance
from many sources” during the performance of their duties).
And while it may be preferable for disputes to be decided on their merits, courts
and other adjudicators often make procedural rulings that end up being dispositive of the
entire dispute. That consequence alone is not evidence of bad faith. Courts have a
similar mechanism under Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. As the
Union states, the Committee’s use of a point of order to assess the sufficiency of
Durham’s case-in-chief to proceed was “analogous to a motion under Rule 50(a) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which authorizes a court to dismiss a case if the party
with the burden of proof fails to present a prima facie case.” Response Br. 27. The
above principles demonstrate that the Committee did not engage in bad faith by relying
on grounds that were not expressly set out in the Agreement or Committee bylaws to
adjudicate the parties’ grievance.
Lastly, Durham urges that the Committee’s decision cannot be enforced because it
contradicts both the plain language of the Agreement, which authorized Durham to
Pg: 13 of 13
terminate Alston’s employment upon the first cell phone violation, and the undisputed
videotape evidence depicting Alston violating that policy. This argument improperly
asks us to engage the merits of the parties’ dispute.
The Supreme Court has
unequivocally reiterated that “courts . . . have no business weighing the merits of the
grievance, considering whether there is equity in a particular claim, or determining
whether there is particular language in the written instrument which will support the
claim.” United Steelworkers of America v. Am. Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 567-68 (1960);
Enterprise Wheel, 363 U.S. at 599 (stating that the “proper approach” for courts is to
“refus[e] . . . to review the merits” of a labor arbitration award). Instead, the Court’s
authority to review the Committee’s decision is limited to the question of whether the
Committee “did [its] job.” Yuasa, 224 F.3d at 321. Having determined that it did, our
For the aforementioned reasons, we affirm the district court’s grant of summary
judgment to the Union.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?