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Souryavong v. Lackawanna County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 19, 2014

MICHAEL SOURYAVONG, et al., Plaintiffs,
LACKAWANNA COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


A. RICHARD CAPUTO, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is Defendant Lackawanna County ("County")'s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint or in the Alternative, To Stay Proceedings (Doc. 25). For the reasons set forth below, the County's motion will be denied.


Plaintiffs Michael Souryavong and Edwin Velez ("Plaintiffs") filed an Amended Complaint ("Am. Compl., " Doc. 20) on August 8, 2013. The following facts are set forth in the Amended Complaint:

Plaintiffs are employees of Lackawanna County working as "Juvenile Detection Officer[s]." (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1-2.) In Count I, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL), and Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (MWA), Plaintiffs claim that from 2008-2011, Plaintiff Souryavong worked over 40 hours in a work week for the County yet the County failed to pay him time and a half as required by law. Id. at ¶¶ 14-17. In 2011, Plaintiff Velez worked over 40 hours in a work week for the County yet the County failed to pay him time and a half as required by law. Id. at ¶ 17. Specifically, Plaintiffs estimate that they worked approximated 24 hours weekly for which they should have been paid overtime for the dates alleged. Id. at ¶ 18. The County's refusal to properly pay overtime compensation is a continuing violation. Id. at ¶ 19. In Count II, Plaintiffs allege that pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"), the County was required to comply with wage and hour laws. Id. at ¶ 26. Plaintiffs filed a grievance over failure to be properly paid for overtime wages and the County denied that grievance. Id. at ¶¶ 27-28. In Count III, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Lackawanna County Sheriff's Association ("Sheriff's Association") "discriminatorily, " arbitrarily, and in bad faith refused to process Plaintiff's meritorious grievance in violation of its duty of fair representation. Id. at ¶¶ 33-34. The Sheriff's Association did not process the grievance according to its own by-laws and helped another member while refusing to represent Plaintiffs. Id. at ¶¶ 36-37. The County conspired with the Sheriff's Association to refuse to process Plaintiffs' grievance which "lulled" the Plaintiffs into believing that the Sheriff's Association "had their best interests at heart." Id. at ¶ 42.

The Sheriff's Association filed an Answer to the Amended Complaint on August 13, 2013 (Doc. 23). The County filed this motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint or in the alternative, to stay the proceedings on August 27, 2013 (Doc. 25). The County's motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for review.


I. Motion to Dismiss Under 12(b)(1)

Defendant first argues that this action should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction because Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust the mandatory grievance and arbitration procedures set forth in the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between the parties. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) provides that a court may dismiss a complaint for "lack of subject-matter jurisdiction." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) therefore challenges the power of a federal court to hear a claim or case. See Petruska v. Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2006). In the face of a 12(b)(1) motion, the plaintiff has the burden to "convince the court it has jurisdiction." Gould Elecs., Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000); see also Kehr Packages v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir.1991)("When subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff must bear the burden of persuasion.").

When a Rule 12(b)(1) motion argues that, although the pleadings facially satisfy jurisdictional prerequisites, one or more of the allegations is untrue, rendering the controversy outside the court's jurisdiction, this presents a "factual" attack on the court's jurisdiction. Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir.1977). In such circumstances, the court is both authorized and required to evaluate the merits of the disputed allegations because "the trial court's... very power to hear the case" is at issue. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891; see also U.S. ex rel. Atkinson v. Pa. Shipbuilding Co., 473 F.3d 506, 514 (3d. Cir. 2007).

The County argues that "[u]nion-represented employees may not independently proceed directly to Federal Court with an FLSA claim where the claim rests on the interpretation of a provision of a collective bargaining agreement." (Doc. 25, ¶12.) Specifically, the County argues that a CBA exists between itself and the Deputy Sheriffs employed by the County, which covers the Plaintiffs, and that wage issues are detailed in the CBA. Id. at ¶¶ 13-15. As such, the County claims that Plaintiffs "cannot pursue this claim until they exhaust their administrative remedies pursuant to Article XXIV of the CBA."[1] Id. at ¶17.

As an initial matter, the County fails to identify any "mandatory grievance and arbitration procedures" in the CBA. Id. at ¶ 8. Looking to the CBA for the period of January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2009, Article XXIV, titled "Grievance Procedures" states that "[i]t is the policy of the County to encourage a harmonious and cooperative relationship between its employees and to resolve employee grievances in accordance with fair and orderly procedures." (Doc. 11, Ex. "A, " 36.) This Article defines a grievance as "a dispute concerning the interpretation, application or alleged violation of a specific term or provision of this Agreement" and proceeds to set forth the procedure for pursuing a grievance. Id. The County also contends that the "CBA between the parties establishes a mandatory grievance and arbitration procedure in Article XXIII." (Doc. 25, ¶18.) Article XXIII of the CBA for the period of January 1, 2006 through December 31, 2009 addresses "Discipline" and merely states that "the ability to grieve and/or arbitrate disciplinary matters shall be subject to the statutory authority given to the Sheriff, consistent with controlling case law." (Doc. 11, Ex. "A, " 35.) Therefore, although the County states that Plaintiffs must exhaust grievance and arbitration procedures before proceeding with an FLSA lawsuit, it is not clear that the CBA provides as much.

However, even if the CBA contained a broad provision requiring the parties to submit to arbitration any dispute involving the application, implementation, or interpretation of any provision of the CBA, the ultimate question of whether Plaintiffs can bring claims for violation of their rights under the FLSA depends on whether resolution of those claims requires the interpretation of a disputed provision of the CBA. See, e.g. Bell v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 733 F.3d 490, 493 (3d. Cir. 2013)("[I]f a FLSA claim depends on the disputed interpretation of a CBA provision, an employee must first go to arbitration-through the representative union-before vindicating his or her rights in federal court under the FLSA."); See also Vadino v. A. Valley Engineers, 903 F.2d 253, 266 (3d. Cir. 1990)(FLSA claims "which rest on interpretations of the underlying collective bargaining agreement must be resolved pursuant to the procedures contemplated under the L[abor] M[anagement] R[elations] A[ct], specifically grievance, arbitration, and, when permissible, suit in federal court under section 301.") . Where plaintiffs "rely solely on their statutory, rather than their contractual, rights to recovery, district courts have had no difficulty concluding that such plaintiffs may proceed on their FLSA claims without first seeking arbitration." Bell, 733 F.3d 490, 496 (3d. Cir. 2013). See also Gallagher v. Lackawanna Cnty., No. 07-cv-0912, 2008 WL 9375549, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 30, 2008)(denying motion to dismiss where plaintiffs argued that their lawsuit arose from defendant's violation of federal law unrelated to a possible breach of the CBA, and that the CBA did not bar them from filing a lawsuit directly in federal court); Moeck v. Gray Supply Corp., No. 03-1950, 2006 WL 42368, at *3 (D.N.J. Jan. 6, 2006) (denying motion to dismiss where "[p]laintiffs' claims are not based on an interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement with respect to the appropriate wage rate, but are based on their contention that they are entitled to overtime" under the FLSA).

Here, relying heavily on Vadino, the County argues that Plaintiffs' FLSA claims concern wages, addressed in Article XII of the CBA, and that Plaintiffs must therefore exhaust the grievance procedures outlined in the CBA before proceeding with their FLSA claims. In Vadino, the plaintiff's chief complaint was that he was paid a lower hourly rate than that of a journeyman pursuant to the CBA despite the fact that his union card designated him as a "journeyman." Vadino, 903 F.2d at 256. In bringing a FLSA claim, the plaintiff in Vadino acknowledged that his employer did pay him one and a half times his normal rate of pay for the hours he worked in excess of forty a week, but he maintained that his "regular rate" of pay under the FLSA should have been the wage he believed he was entitled to as a "journeyman" under the CBA, and not the lower rate he actually received. Id. at 264. Therefore, the phrase "resting on interpretations" of the CBA in Vadino referred to the determination of whether the plaintiff was compensated with the appropriate wage rate pursuant to the CBA. In the instant case, while Article XII does set forth wage rates and scheduled increases for different employee classifications with the County, unlike the plaintiff in Vadino, the Plaintiffs here do not dispute the wage rates they received pursuant to the CBA. Instead, they ...

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