Thursday, October 27, 2016
Ninth Circuit Revives Laid-Off Worker’s Claim Against Labor Union
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday reinstated a laid-off hospital worker’s claim that her union deprived her of fair representation by providing only perfunctory support for her grievance alleging that she was improperly denied the benefit of seniority.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the union in the suit brought by Starla Rollins, a former billing clerk employed for over 20 years by Community Hospital of San Bernardino, Judge William Fletcher wrote for the panel.
Rollins had been represented since 2002 by Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or SEIU-UHW, and had been active in the union.
In 2007, according to the evidence opposing summary judgment, she was offered a promotion from “ward clerk” to “billing coordinator.” Worried that she would lose seniority, she asked the union to negotiate a side agreement on her behalf, and a pact was reached providing that if her position were to be eliminated as part of a reduction in force, she would be permitted to “bump” back to her ward clerk classification.
The following year, a new collective bargaining agreement was reached between the hospital and the union, providing in part that no employee “shall suffer any reduction in wages, benefits or other terms and conditions of employment, economic or otherwise, as a result of coverage under this Agreement.”
The CBA provided, further, that “[u]pon mutual agreement, the Union and the Employer may agree to an alternative arrangement regarding reduction in force.”
In 2012, the hospital implemented a reduction in force, implemented by a memorandum of understanding between the hospital and the union. Workers were offered severance, training opportunities, and the right to bid for other open positions at the hospital.
That agreement did not prohibit “bumping,” nor did it eliminate the ward clerk position that Rollins was allowed to return to under her side agreement. In October 2012, however, Rollins was told that she was being laid off, and that the 2007 agreement, which had been memorialized in emails, was not enforceable.
Rollins and several other employees sought to challenge the layoffs under the grievance process, but were unsuccessful. Rollins sued the hospital and the union under the Labor Management Relations Act.
In ruling for the union, Real concluded that the 2007 agreement was enforceable at the time, but was either inadmissible under the parol evidence rule or was superseded by the CBA. Nor, he said, did the union treat Rollins unfairly.
Fletcher disagreed. In his opinion for the appellate panel, he said the 2007 agreement did not conflict with the CBA or with the MOU implementing the layoffs.
Rollins, he went on to say, presented substantial evidence that the union violated both the 2007 agreement and the MOU. He noted that the LMRA applies to all contracts between employers and unions, not just CBAs, and said the 2007 agreement fell within the scope of the act.
Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Fletcher said there was sufficient proof that the union failed to adequately support the grievance. He said the union “never seriously considered Rollins’s rights” under the 2007 agreement, “improperly lumped Rollins with other, non-similarly situated employees,” and failed in its duty to advance the grievance in the absence of uncontested evidence that it lacked merit.
The case is Rollins v. Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, 14-55971.
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