Monday, April 24, 2017
Lawsuit Against Union by Fired Employee No SLAPP, Court of Appeal Rules
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A suit by a former labor union business agent who claims he was fired due to his age and disability, and in retaliation for his objections to what he saw as dishonest organizing activity, was erroneously dismissed under the anti-SLAPP statute, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Two Thursday reinstate Robert Kniss’s suit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Teamsters Local No. 63. Kniss was fired as the local’s business agent, and from a separate job as a representative of the international, in April and May 2014,
In his complaint, he claimed that his age and disability were substantial factors in the firings, and that he was also retaliated against for refusing to participate in “handbilling.”
In March 2014, the union launched a campaign to unionize employees of a company that trucks food to restaurants. It directed employees, including Kniss, to distribute flyers to employees of a fast food restaurant making allegations about both the restaurant chain and the targeted company.
Kniss claims that he objected to the handbilling because the allegations were false, and because they were being distributed in the name of a non-existent organization instead of the union. He also said he could not sit or stand for a two-hour handbilling shift due to his bulging discs and prior back surgeries.
The union filed anti-SLAPP motions, claiming the suit was an attack on its free speech and petition rights in connection with its organizing campaign. It also argued that the content of the handbills was accurate.
In opposition, Kniss argued that the anti-SLAPP statute was inapplicable because the gravamen of the suit had nothing to do with the union’s participation in arguably protected activity. He also contended that he was likely to prevail.
San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Joseph Brisco granted the motions in their entirety, saying the suit was primarily about whether the union could fire Kniss for refusing to engage in handbilling, and that Kniss was unlikely to prevail because he did not refute the union’s contention that he was fired for refusing to hand out the flyers, not because of age and disability.
But Justice Douglas Miller, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said the case was essentially about an employment dispute, not free speech.
He noted that each party claimed it tried to resolve the disagreement before Kniss was fired, but that the other refused to discuss the dispute.
“The gravamen of the complaint is not handbilling—it is about which party refused an attempt to resolve the work issues raised by the handbilling,” Miller wrote.
The justice distinguished Tuszynska v. Cunningham (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 257, which held that an attorney’s sex discrimination suit against a prepaid legal services plan, which the plaintiff claimed referred cases to less experienced male lawyers because the plaintiff was a woman, implicated protected activity.
“In Tuszynska, the complained-of acts were protected activities, and the unprotected conduct was the motivation behind the acts,” Miller wrote. “The instant case is the direct opposite,” he said, because “handbilling is a motivation—it is not a complained-of act.”
The case is Kniss v. Teamsters Local No. 63, E064386.
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