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Lopez v. Transportation Workers Union Local 234

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 19, 2017

CHRISTOPHER LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
TRANSPORTATION WORKERS UNION LOCAL 234, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         After he was terminated from his employment as a bus driver, Christopher Lopez sued the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (“SEPTA”) and Transportation Workers Union Local 234 (“the Union”). In Count I of his Amended Complaint, he contends that SEPTA breached its Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) with the Union by terminating him without just cause and failing to produce exculpatory evidence during his grievance proceeding. In Count II, he alleges the Union breached its duty of fair representation by failing to represent him adequately in the grievance process and refusing to take his case to arbitration. In Count III, which he brings pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, Lopez claims that both SEPTA and the Union violated his procedural due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by discharging him without just cause and failing to comply with various procedural requirements contemplated by the CBA. Both Defendants filed motions to dismiss. For the reasons below, the motions are granted in part and denied in part.

         I.

         Lopez began working for SEPTA as a bus driver in September 2008. (Am. Compl. ¶ 10.) On July 7, 2015, he stopped his bus at 11th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia to let passengers board. (Id. ¶ 12.) Lopez alleges he said “come on, if you coming” to a seemingly intoxicated individual who was standing outside the bus, but the individual did not move. (Id.) According to Lopez, he closed the door and drove off without incident. (Id.) When he reached Vine Street, a Philadelphia police officer stopped him and asked if he was in an accident on Walnut Street. (Id. ¶ 14.) Lopez answered that he did not think so and had not noticed any issues with his bus. (Id.) The police officer directed the passengers to get on another bus. (Id. ¶ 15.)

         Philadelphia police detectives interviewed Lopez and told him that an individual had been run over at 11th and Walnut. (Id. ¶ 16.) Lopez was given a drug and alcohol test, which came back negative. (Id. ¶ 17.) He was not charged with any crimes or issued any traffic tickets. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) He was told by a SEPTA supervisor to fill out an incident report and then released to go home. (Id. ¶ 20.) Though he continued to come into work, he was placed “on hold” until SEPTA could hold a hearing-he came into work every day and was in uniform but was not placed on the street. (Id. ¶ 21.)

         One week later, SEPTA charged him with negligence and unsafe driving. (Id. ¶ 23.) The CBA between SEPTA and the Union establishes a grievance procedure consisting of four steps: (1) an informal hearing, (2) a formal hearing, (3) a hearing in front of SEPTA's Labor Relations Department and, should the Union decide to proceed to the final step, (4) binding arbitration. See (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 25, 26, 29, 63, 64, 66; SEPTA's Mot., Ex. A).

         In July 2015, an informal hearing was held before SEPTA's Senior Director, Tom Ropas. At Lopez's request, he was represented by Union Representative Andre Jones, whose candidacy for Union Vice President Lopez had openly supported in previous Union elections. At the hearing, Ropas recommended discharge. (Id. ¶ 25.) Though SEPTA allegedly had in its possession a toxicology report of the alleged victim showing that he was intoxicated on the night of the incident, SEPTA failed to produce it. Jones demanded that SEPTA produce the toxicology report at the upcoming formal hearing. (Id. ¶ 57.) Lopez contends that SEPTA postponed the formal hearing every time Jones requested the report and ultimately failed to produce it. (Id. ¶ 57.)

         In September 2015, Union officers substituted Tony Goins[1] for Andre Jones to represent Lopez at the formal hearing. (Id. ¶ 58.) Goins supported Willie Brown and Brian Pollitt, who defeated John Johnson and Jones in a prior Union election for President and Vice President, respectively, of the Union. Lopez opposed the Brown and Pollitt ticket. Lopez contends “[t]his was a deliberate move by the Union to breach its duty of fair representation of [him] in the subsequent grievance proceedings of SEPTA's termination of [him].” (Id. ¶ 58.)

         Lopez alleges that he attempted to call Goins to discuss his case and have Goins request certain supporting evidence, but Goins failed to return his calls. (Id. ¶ 59.) When he did reach Goins, Goins was “very combative.” (Id.) Lopez claims that he told Goins to insist that SEPTA produce the victim's toxicological report. He also allegedly told Goins to “bring to the hearing several records in the Union's possession where other members had been involved in a similar accident to the circumstances of the one involving [Lopez], but were not terminated by SEPTA, but [Goins] refused to obtain the information and did not bring the records to the hearing.” (Id.)

         Goins allegedly notified Lopez about the formal hearing just one day before it was scheduled to occur. (Id. ¶ 60.) Lopez asked Goins if SEPTA had produced the toxicological report; Goins responded that SEPTA had not but was “antagonistic” to Lopez and stated that he was proceeding with the hearing “with or without” him. (Id.) Lopez contends that Goins was “woefully unprepared” at the hearing and did not present information regarding alleged comparators that would have supported Lopez's case even though Lopez and Jones had previously advised him that such information was available and should be presented as evidence of SEPTA's inconsistent application of its disciplinary rules. (Id. ¶ 61.)

         After SEPTA denied Lopez's grievance at the formal hearing, Lopez spoke with Pollitt, the Union's Vice President, and requested that Jones be reassigned to represent him at the next grievance step before SEPTA's Labor Relations Department because Goins “was not helpful at the formal hearing and was combative.” (Id. ¶ 62.) Pollitt declined and “yelled at [Lopez] on the phone, saying he would not have Andre Jones represent [him] at the Labor Relations step without reasonable explanation.” (Id. ¶ 63.) His “tone of voice and language on the phone” was allegedly antagonistic. (Id. ¶ 64.)

         Lopez contends that at the Labor Relations hearing, Goins was again unprepared and failed to obtain or present either the toxicology report or the comparator evidence. (Id. ¶ 64.) SEPTA's Labor Relations Department denied the grievance. (Id. ¶ 65.) Lopez thereafter met with Union officials and asked the Union to request arbitration. (Id. ¶ 67.) The Union, however, informed him that it had decided not to do so. (Id. ¶ 68.)

         II.

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must provide “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. (citation omitted). While a complaint need not include detailed facts, it must provide “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Twombly and Iqbal require the Court to take three steps to determine whether the second amended complaint will survive Defendants' motion to dismiss. See Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016). First, it must “take note of the elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). Next, it must identify the allegations that are no more than legal conclusions and thus “not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Finally, where the complaint includes well-pleaded factual allegations, the Court “should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

         This “presumption of truth attaches only to those allegations for which there is sufficient factual matter to render them plausible on their face.” Schuchardt v. President of the United States, 839 F.3d 336, 347 (3d Cir. 2016) (internal quotation and citation omitted). “Conclusory assertions of fact and legal conclusions are not entitled to the same presumption.” Id. This plausibility determination is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. (quoting Connelly, 809 F.3d at 786-87).

         III.

         A.

         In Count I of his Amended Complaint, Lopez claims SEPTA breached the CBA by terminating him without just cause and failing to provide the Union with all documents relating to the incident for which he was charged, including ...


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