Duty of Fair Representation Does Not Extend to Union Member’s Widow

By Roger S. Achille January 9, 2018
Duty of Fair Representation Does Not Extend to Union Member’s Widow

​Since a union's duty of fair representation does not extend to persons who are not employees of the bargaining unit, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania dismissed a widow's claim that she was owed this duty and that it was breached when a union proceeded posthumously to arbitration without her involvement concerning her deceased husband's termination of employment.

The plaintiff's husband was an employee of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) and a member of Teamsters Local Union No. 77 (Local 77). Local 77 and the PTC were parties to a collective bargaining agreement, which governed the terms of her husband's employment. The agreement required automatic termination of an employee if the worker had more than three unauthorized absences.

On May 24, 2005, police arrested the plaintiff's husband after work. During his incarceration, he suffered a broken wrist and dislocated shoulder, causing him to miss work on May 25-26, May 28-29, May 31-June 1, and June 3. He used leave to cover his absence from work on May 25-26; however, the PTC treated his remaining absences as unauthorized due to his lack of available leave time. With more than three unauthorized absences, the PTC automatically terminated him on June 3, 2005. Local 77 filed a grievance on his behalf, claiming that the PTC fired him due to a pre-existing work-related medical condition and his political views, not his arrest-related absences. The PTC denied his grievance, and he subsequently requested an arbitration hearing. Prior to the arbitration hearing, he died on Oct. 16, 2005. Nevertheless, Local 77 represented his interests posthumously at the arbitration hearing but did not notify the plaintiff of the hearing date or location despite her request to attend. Following the arbitration hearing, her husband's grievance was denied.

The plaintiff filed a complaint against Local 77 in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, claiming that Local 77 had breached its duty of fair representation with respect to her husband's grievance. She argued that Local 77 should have allowed her to participate in the arbitration. She asserted that Local 77 initially informed her that she could participate in the arbitration proceedings, only to subsequently refuse to inform her of the time and date of the hearing. Local 77's refusal to include her in the arbitration proceeding, she contended, resulted in the loss of benefits that should have passed to her upon her husband's death.

The trial court dismissed her claim, concluding that the "law says with certainty that no recovery is possible" since case law recognizes a union's fiduciary bargaining agreement only to members and employees of the collective bargaining unit, not to nonmembers or nonemployees. On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania agreed.

A labor union has the statutory duty to represent all the members of the employee bargaining unit fairly. A member of the bargaining unit has a right of action against the union for breach of its duty of fair representation. A union violates its duty of fair representation if its actions are arbitrary, discriminatory or in bad faith. Because this rule applies to all union activities, an employee's remedy for the bargaining agent's failure to prosecute a grievance properly is an action against the union for damages for breach of its duty of fair representation. Significantly, a union's duty of fair representation does not extend to persons who are not employees of the bargaining unit.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What employee categories are excluded from the bargaining unit?]

Describing the plaintiff's argument as falling "woefully short," the Superior Court remarked that she failed to cite "any relevant authority to support her claim" and, in fact, conceded that there was no relevant case law to support her position. The "mere conclusions" that Local 77 breached its duty of fair representation without her involvement, the court stated, were among the "substantial defects" that "preclude meaningful review and constitute sufficient grounds" for dismissal.

Bergin v. Teamsters Local Union No. 77, Pa. Super. Ct., No. 114 EDA 2017 (Nov. 28, 2017).

Professional Pointer: As long as an employer follows the collective bargaining agreement, particularly with respect to just-cause provisions, a breach of a union's duty of fair representation should be of little to no concern. The only damages from a breach that may be attributable to an employer will be those that arise from an employer's breach of the collective bargaining agreement.

Roger S. Achille is an attorney and a professor at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I.


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