BROWN v. COILPLUS-PENNSYLVANIA, INC. et al
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE GERALD A. MCHUGH ON 6/21/17. 6/21/17 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(mbh, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
DAVID BROWN, SR.
UNITED STEEL, PAPER & FORESTRY,
RUBBER, MANUFACTURING, ENERGY,
ALLIED INDUSTRIAL AND SERVICE
WORKERS INTERNATIONAL UNION,
AFL-CIO, CLC, LOCAL UNION #4889-08
June 21, 2017
This action is controlled by the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141 –
191. Plaintiff was a union member protected by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) under
which he could be discharged only for cause. He claims he was fired in violation of that
agreement, and that his union denied him reasonable representation on appeal.
Plaintiff’s employer, Coilplus Pennsylvania, and his former union, the AFL-CIO, argue
that his claims must be dismissed because: (1) Plaintiff has not adequately asserted a claim
against the union, and (2) Plaintiff’s complaint is barred by the LMRA’s statute of limitations.
Because I find merit in the first argument, and because as discussed below this is a “hybrid”
action under the LMRA, Mr. Brown’s claims must be dismissed.
Standard of Review
This case is governed by the well-established standards of Rule 12(b)(6), as amplified by
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009).
Coilplus Pennsylvania is a manufacturer of flat-rolled steel coils. Plaintiff worked at
Coilplus’s factory between August 2011 and February 2016. From 2013 to 2015, he worked as
an Assistant Operator. In late 2015, though, he was ordered to fill a temporary Head Setter
position. Plaintiff was trained as a Head Setter, but he disliked the job. Head Setters are
required to “shim” little rings, and Plaintiff had difficulty with this task. He thus asked several
times to be reassigned, and his supervisors assured him that he would be back to his old job “in
no time.” Nonetheless, Plaintiff remained a Head Setter for thirty days, and was then told he
would be required to remain in the position for another six-to-eight weeks.
In January 2016, Plaintiff purportedly made multiple errors while shimming rings. He
was given three write-ups for poor performance, after which he asked to take a medical leave of
absence. Before he could amass the paperwork necessary to file for leave, he made another error
and was placed on suspension pending termination. Approximately two weeks later, a union
representative contacted Plaintiff and informed him that he could either collect unemployment or
stay on suspension and petition for his job at a hearing. Plaintiff opted for a hearing, which was
held on February 25, 2016.
Plaintiff, his plant supervisor Michael Onody, and the union president Brian Martin
attended the hearing. Onody asked whether they should wait for Plaintiff’s union representative
before beginning, but Martin told him that they could proceed. After a brief exchange between
Onody and Martin about Brown’s fitness to serve as a Head Setter, Brown alleges that “the
meeting then became an exchange of inappropriate language between Onody and Martin.” Am.
Compl. ¶ 43. Onody first accused Plaintiff of making mistakes on purpose. Id. ¶ 42. Then, “the
two men were attacking each other on how they both handle their business. . . . The hearing
ended abruptly without Martin affectively [sic] arguing Plaintiff’s matter.” Id ¶ 45. On March 4,
2016, Plaintiff was told he lost the hearing. His termination was made final on that date.
The Hybrid Nature of Claims Under § 301 of the LMRA
In both his Complaint and his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff raised two claims: one
against Coilplus for violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the other against the
union for breach of the duty of fair representation. Plaintiff did not affirmatively plead these
claims under § 301 of the LMRA – indeed, he mentioned the statute only once, more than four
months after beginning this suit, when facing a motion to dismiss his Amended Complaint. 1 But
Plaintiff belatedly acknowledges he can only proceed under the LMRA.
Although ordinarily the plaintiff in a civil action can bring parallel claims against
separate defendants and proceed with them independently, that is not true in the field of labor
management relations, where Congress has legislatively defined the scope of permissive claims.
Because the CBA creates remedies for wrongful termination, a worker must ordinarily exhaust
all grievance or arbitration remedies in the contract before bringing suit. See DelCostello v. Int’l
Bhd. of Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151, 164 (1983). The LMRA, however, provides an exception to
that rule where a worker claims not only that his employer violated the terms of the CBA, but
also that his union then failed to reasonably represent him in asserting the contractual violation.
Id. Under § 301, then, a worker can bring a “hybrid” suit composed of two “inextricably
interdependent” claims. Id. That right comes with an important limitation: a worker is entitled
to relief if, and only if, he can succeed on both claims. See id at 165 (1983) (“To prevail against
either the company or the [u]nion, employee-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
“Plaintiff concedes his action is governed by the LMRA.” Resp. at 7.
A. Plaintiff’s Claim Against the Union
Claims for breach of the duty of fair representation are rarely sustained. A worker
advancing this theory must show that a union’s treatment of him was “arbitrary, discriminatory,
or in bad faith.” Masy v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 790 F.2d 322, 328 (3d Cir. 1986).
Here, Plaintiff does not plead discrimination or bad faith – he claims only that the union’s
conduct was arbitrary.
Under the controlling precedent, “A union’s conduct can be classified as arbitrary only
when it is irrational, when it is without a rational basis or explanation.” Marquez v. Screen
Actors Guild, Inc., 525 U.S. 33, 46 (1998). The Third Circuit has emphasized that “[t]he
plaintiff must demonstrate more than mere ineptitude or negligence on the part of the union, and
the fact that trained counsel would have avoided the error or pursued a different strategy is not
enough.” Riley v. Letter Carriers Local No. 380, 668 F.2d 224, 238 (3d Cir. 1981). 2
Plaintiff cannot meet this standard. He has alleged the following facts: (1) Martin failed
to wait for Plaintiff’s union representative before starting the meeting, (2) he “insist[ed] Onody
should have listened to Plaintiff in the first instance,” (3) he “made a remark that Coilplus does
this kind of stuff to employees all the time,” and (4) the meeting devolved into an “exchange of
inappropriate language between Onody and Martin,” in which “the two men were attacking each
other on how they both handle their business.” Am. Compl. ¶ 41 - ¶ 45. 3
This statement, originally from Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 191 (1967), continues to be focus of opinions from
the Court of Appeals. See, e.g., Gehringer v. Atlantic Detroit Diesel Allison LLC., 595 Fed. Appx. 157 (3d Cir.
2014; see also Raczkowski v. Empire Kosher Poultry, 185 F. App’x. 117 (3d Cir. 2006) (finding that a union’s
failure to use an existing grievance or arbitration process was not arbitrary because “there is no evidence that it had
abused its considerable discretion in doing so”).
In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff added the adverb “arbitrarily” to several of these factual statements, but that
does not affect my reading of them. “[B]are assertions of arbitrary conduct” must be supported by “actual factual
allegations” to sustain an LMRA claim against a union. Masy, 790 F.2d at 328.
None of these allegations rises above negligence. The Amended Complaint strongly
suggests that the union’s representation was inept – shouting obscenities at one’s adversary is
usually unpersuasive. But it does not show that Martin’s actions “lack[ed] rational basis or
explanation.” Marquez, 535 U.S. at 46. Indeed, the Amended Complaint demonstrates that
Martin did advocate – apparently forcefully – on Plaintiff’s behalf. In Plaintiff’s formulation of
the case, Martin believed, rightly or wrongly, that he could adequately represent Plaintiff without
his union representative present at the hearing. He also believed that engaging Onody
aggressively about his failure to listen to Plaintiff, and about Coilplus’s history of parallel
disputes, would effectively advance Plaintiff’s cause. While the outcome – Brown’s termination
– proves these judgments wrong, they were not arbitrary in the legal sense. A breach of the duty
of fair representation has therefore not occurred.
B. Plaintiff’s Claim Against Coilplus
Coilplus has not moved to dismiss the claim against it on substantive grounds. It has
instead devoted the whole of its briefing to the claim that Plaintiff filed his Complaint outside the
LMRA’s statute of limitations. But I need not reach the statute of limitations issue, given the
hybrid nature of this action. Because Plaintiff has not stated a claim against the union, any claim
he has against Coilplus must also fail as a matter of law. DelCostello, 462 U.S. at 165.
The LMRA favors internal grievance procedures over litigation in employment disputes.
In service of that preference, it places the fate of fired employees in the hands of their bargaining
units. At the same time, it grants unions wide latitude in how they approach the representation of
their members. Courts are not permitted to pass judgment on the manner in which unions
represent their members, so long as they avoid arbitrary and discriminatory conduct. Because
the essence of Mr. Brown’s claim is the quality of the representation he received, his claim fails
as a matter of law.
/s/ Gerald Austin McHugh
United States District Judge
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?