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Rothlein v. Armour & Co.

decided: March 26, 1968.


Biggs, McLaughlin and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen


This appeal is from summary judgment entered for the defendant below, Armour & Company, Inc., in a suit brought against Armour by the appellants, certain employees of Armour. The appellants allegedly represented a class of eighty-six employees and sought an accounting and payment of amounts owing them under a pension plan established by Armour in 1952. They brought the suit under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act 29 U.S.C. ยง 185(a) claiming the accounting and payment were owed them under a collective bargaining agreement between Armour and the appellants' union, Local 249, General Teamsters, Chauffeurs, and Helpers of America ("Teamsters Local 249").

The 1952-3 collective bargaining agreement first made Armour's Pension Plan effective for appellants.*fn1 This pension plan coverage was apparently continued in the agreements negotiated every year until 1964.*fn2 In 1964, Teamsters Local 249 obtained Armour's agreement to make payments to the Teamsters Pension Plan. The 1964 contract said nothing about the Armour plan; it merely provided that Armour would pay certain sums per employee per week into the Teamsters Pension Plan.*fn3

The apparent gravamen of appellants' complaint is that they have never seen the documents governing the actual "1952" Armour Pension Plan. (It is noted that such pension plan does not appear in the record.) Furthermore, they claim they have no idea of the amounts accumulated for each employee under the "1952" plan. The appellees, on the other hand, aver under oath*fn4 that in negotiations for the 1964 agreement, Teamsters Local 249 agreed that all employees would withdraw from and cease to have any right, title or interest in the Armour Pension Plan or Pension Fund, with the exception of five named employees who could not qualify for the Teamsters Pension Plan.*fn5 As evidence of this alleged agreement, appellee points to Exhibit III of its Answer, a "Supplemental Agreement" to the 1964 contract, and the provision that "in settlement of grievances or working conditions . . . it is recognized that . . . the five employees will continue to be covered by the Armour Plan. . . ."*fn6 Armour contends that the necessity of making such an agreement proves that all employees, including the five later exceptions, were otherwise totally out of the Armour Pension Plan. An appellants' affidavit by an employee who allegedly attended all negotiations of the 1964 contract, denied that Teamsters Local 249 ever waived any employee's "right, title and interest in and to the Armour Pension Plan and the Armour Pension Fund."

After the complaint and answer were filed, Armour asked for summary judgment, alleging that the appellants had not exhausted the contractual grievance procedure. The district court granted a stay of all proceedings to allow appellants to pursue the grievance procedure. After the appellants had taken their grievance through the three steps provided in the 1964 agreement, both sides stipulated an end to the stay. Appellants asked that the trial under Section 301 again proceed; Armour amended its motion for summary judgment stating that the grievance procedure had resulted in a final rejection of the appellants' grievance. Interpreting the grievance procedure of the 1964 contract as making the rejection of appellants' grievance "final,"*fn7 and finding the decision in Haynes v. United States Pipe & Foundry Company, 362 F.2d 414 (5th Cir. 1966) persuasive that the "final" determination was binding on the court,*fn8 the district court granted Armour's motion for summary judgment.

We do not agree with the District Court that on this record no substantial issue of fact remains. As a major step in any reasoning that permits the conclusion below, it must be decided that the present controversy is a "difference . . . between the Company and employees" as that phrase was intended in Article XIV of the 1964 contract.*fn9 It is conceivable that a request for an accounting and payment under an "old" employer pension plan is not a "difference" as that word is used in this present contract. Furthermore, there must also be a preliminary determination that the "grievance procedure" in the 1964 contract is the appropriate procedure in this case and not the "grievance procedure" of Article 14 of the 1952 agreement which has as its apparent final step:

"If a mutual understanding cannot be arrived at, said grievance shall be turned over to the local for further study and a decision."*fn10

Although the "old" contract was apparently terminated by the union June 19, 1964, it is possible that the "1952" grievance procedure is the appropriate one in this case. The pension fund at issue was made effective under the old contract and the notes of the hearing on the stay referred to the "applicable grievance procedure". The parties then proceeded to employ the 1964 grievance procedure. But the record does not give any indication that the district court ever decided this question of which grievance section should be employed to decide pension plan rights granted under the earlier "1952" contract. This latter grievance provision might well require a different conclusion as to whether exhaustion of its provisions produced a "final" decision on a "difference" between Armour and its employees.*fn11

It is appropriate in this case, however, also to point out the legal rules applicable if the district court again decides that these individual employees have obtained a "final" decision under the relevant contract grievance procedure. It seems proper under Federal Labor Law that such suits by individuals under Section 301 of the L.M.R.A. not be dragged out indefinitely by procedural or preliminary controversies and that individual claims, if they are properly before the court under Section 301 jurisdiction, be decided on the merits without unnecessary delay.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that under Section 301, individual employees have the right and the standing to sue on collective bargaining contracts negotiated by their union and their employer.*fn12 The broad grant to employees in the early cases, however, has been considerably circumscribed in subsequent decisions. Accordingly, one present rule is that an individual may not sue under Section 301 unless he has first had recourse to the "grievance" procedures under the collective bargaining contract.*fn13

Under this rule, initially procedural in nature, certain consequences may ensue for the complaining employee with regard to the "merits" of his suit. As the question is presented on the present record, if the "grievance procedure" of his contract provides for a "final" determination of the "merits" of his complaint, is an employee barred from further suing under Section 301?*fn14 As the district court recognized, the Supreme Court has not yet answered this precise question.*fn15 But other decisions offer some guidance. The Supreme Court's "arbitration" cases,*fn16 suggest that when a comprehensive contractual procedure is available, such as arbitration, federal labor policy demands both initial recourse to such procedures and limited appeal from the decisions reached.*fn17 One avenue of recourse, however, to allow further suit under Section 301 for individual rights in a collective contract, opens when an employee proves that his union violated its duty of fair representation in representing his interests in the contractual procedure.*fn18 Another means of escape from "arbitration" finality would also seem possible when an employee shows that the "arbitration" is a sham, or is substantially inadequate or unavailable.*fn19 The Supreme Court has indicated by these decisions that, although a suit may be brought under Section 301 by individual employees, they will escape being bound by a "private" decision on the merits of their complaint in only a very few instances.*fn20 Frivolous complaints should not clog the courts.*fn21 Claims intimately related to a collective bargaining relationship should not allow courts to strait-jacket unions and employers.*fn22 And run-of-the-mill disputes should be settled by the union, on behalf of the employee, because such a procedure substantially assists the union as the employees' representative.*fn23

But we do not think the teaching of the Supreme Court's "arbitration" decisions means that regardless of the employee claim involved, an agreement between the union and management that the claim was without merit should bind the courts. Rather we think that in a case such as the one at the bar, the district court should consider in some detail whether or not to accept the private determinations made under the contract and thus use it as a basis for summary judgment.*fn24 For instance in the present case, it might appear that an "accounting" for pension funds is not the type of dispute contemplated by the grievance procedures of the contract.*fn25 What most probably underlies the present dispute are the terms of the Armour Pension Plan and Fund and the contractual provisions relating to "vesting" or termination of coverage.*fn26 While the controversy over or the status of such "old" funds may well be a critical item in the collective bargaining relationship between Armour and Teamsters Local 249, this fact could also show that an employee would have to oppose both Teamsters Local 249 and Armour to get such an accounting.*fn27 In deciding whether the grievance procedure provides an acceptable "merits" determination, in light of the possible unity of union and management interest, the type of procedure afforded becomes relevant.*fn28 For instance, both the 1952 and 1964 contract in the present case did not provide arbitration to resolve disputes. The process contemplated might therefore work only when the union and management took different positions. On the present record their positions on the Pension Plan cannot be determined. In analysing the above factors, before a district court should accept a contractual "merits" determination as a basis for granting summary judgment under Section 301, the judge should be satisfied that the quality of the contractual grievance procedures, in actual practice and "legally," is commensurate with the substantiality of the claim or dispute presented by the employee. If the procedures suffer because a union is in breach of its duty of fair representation, clearly the individual should have recourse to the courts.*fn29 If an infirmity less than that is present, federal labor policy would suggest that the rights of a few (the individual employees with complaints) be carefully balanced against the concerns of the many (all employees who have a collective interest in the bargaining position of their union and the integrity of the contract).*fn30

For the foregoing reasons we will reverse the order of June 9, 1967 granting appellee summary judgment, and remand the case for disposition ...

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