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Helvetia Coal Co. v. United Mine Workers of America, International Union

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 26, 2018

HELVETIA COAL COMPANY, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA, INTERNATIONAL UNION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Cathy Bissoon United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Helvetia Coal Company, Laurel Run Mining Company, Island Creek Coal Company and Consol Amonate Facility, LLC, bring this action seeking in part to vacate an arbitration decision rendered on October 31, 2017. Defendant United Mine Workers of America, International Union (“the Union”) filed a Motion to Dismiss or transfer jurisdiction on the basis of the first-filed rule. (Doc. 28.) For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted and this case will be transferred to the Southern District of West Virginia.

         BACKGROUND

         A. The Instant Proceedings

         Plaintiffs Helvetia Coal Company, Laurel Run Mining Company, Island Creek Company and Consol Amonate Facility, LLC, (collectively, “Plaintiffs” or “CONSOL”) filed an Amended Complaint on December 19, 2017. (Am. Compl., Doc. 25.) According to the Amended Complaint, the Union periodically negotiates a labor agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators' Association (“BCOA”) a multiemployer bargaining association, which acts on behalf of member employers. (Am. Compl. ¶ 8.) The member employers of the BCOA, and non-member companies who agree to be bound by negotiated labor agreements, are known as “signatory” companies. (Id.) The labor agreements are known as National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreements (“NBCWAs”). (Id.) Plaintiffs are signatories to the 2011 NBCWA, which expired on December 31, 2016. (Id. at ¶¶ 9-10.)

         In August 2016, the Union and the BCOA executed the 2016 NBCWA, the successor labor agreement to the 2011 NBCWA. (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiffs were not signatories to the 2016 NBCWA. (Id.) By notice dated October 31, 2016, Plaintiffs informed the Union of their intent to terminate the 2011 NBCWA on December 31, 2016. (Id. ¶ 10.)

         Plaintiffs met with the Union on multiple occasions in 2016 to negotiate changes to retiree benefit programs (“the Plan”) to be implemented following the expiration of the 2011 NBCWA. (Id. ¶ 19.) At a November 29, 2016 meeting, Plaintiffs proposed that the planned changes to the Plan be implemented on April 1, 2017, instead of at the expiration of the 2011 NBCWA. (Id. ¶ 22.) On December 8, 2016, Plaintiffs asked the Union for a response to the proposals made at the November 29, 2016, meeting. (Id. ¶ 25.) On December 22, 2016, the Union rejected certain of the proposals and requested that Plaintiffs take no further action pending a decision to the Trustees of the UMWA 1993 Benefit Plan (“Trustees”) on a November 1, 2016 grievance submitted by the Union challenging Plaintiffs' ability to alter the Plan following the expiration of the 2011 NBCWA. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 27.)

         Pursuant to the terms of the 2011 NBCWA, disputes arising under the agreement are to be referred to the Trustees. (Id. ¶ 16.) The contractual grievance mechanism is referred to as the “resolution of dispute” (“ROD”) process. (Id. ¶ 17.) The November 1, 2016 grievance submitted to the Trustees by the Union is ROD No. 11-0143, and it was filed on behalf of grievant Frank Rich, a Union retiree. (Id. ¶ 27.) ROD No. 11-0143 sought a determination from the Trustees that a signatory employer “is not permitted to implement any unilateral changes or modifications of the benefits provided by its plan, either during the term of the 2011 NBCWA or following its termination.” (Id.) On October 31, 2017, the Trustees issued their decision in favor of the Complainant. (Id. ¶ 31; Opinion of Trustees, ROD No. 110143, Oct. 31, 2017, attached as Ex. 1 to Doc. 25.) The Trustees' Opinion concluded that the Respondent company is not permitted to make modifications or changes to the retiree health benefit plan unilaterally, and that the proposed changes described by the company will not provide the level of health benefits as mandated in the 2011 NBCWA or benefit plan. (Opinion of Trustees, at 10.)

         Plaintiffs raise five counts in the Amended Complaint and request that the Court: (1) vacate the October 31, 2017 decision in ROD No. 11-0143; (2) declare that the negotiated exhaustion of remedies requirement and Resolution of Disputes process provided in the relevant section of the expired 2011 NBCWA, and 2011 employee benefit plan, is inapplicable to post-termination retiree health benefit disputes; (3) declare that Plaintiffs do not breach the expired 2011 NBCWA by changing the mechanism for providing healthcare benefits for their Medicare-eligible retirees and dependents from an employer-sponsored group insurance to individually directed Health Reimbursement Accounts; and (4) declare that negotiations between the Union and Plaintiffs concerning post-termination changes to the Plan are subject to the NLRA, and its impasse doctrine. (Doc. 25 at 14.)

         On January 10, 2018, the Union filed the instant Motion to Dismiss or transfer jurisdiction and Brief in Support. (Docs. 28, 29.) Plaintiffs filed a Brief in Opposition on January 30, 2018. (Doc. 30.) On May 23, 2018, the Union filed an Answer to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, (Doc. 32), notifying the Court that they had filed a second amended complaint in a parallel action in West Virginia and requesting that the instant case be transferred, not stayed.

         Because the instant action relates to two parallel actions, the Court will briefly summarize these actions: United Mine Workers of America v. CONSOL Energy, Inc., 16-CV-12506 (S.D. W.Va.) (filed December 23, 2016) (hereinafter the “West Virginia Action”), and Helvetia Coal Co. v. United Mine Workers of Am., Int'l Union, No. CV 17-2, 2017 WL 3669415 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 23, 2017) (Kelly, C.M.J.) (hereinafter the “First Pennsylvania Action”).

         B. The West Virginia Action

         On December 23, 2016, the Union and individual retired union member miners (collectively, “the Union Plaintiffs”) filed in the Southern District of West Virginia a complaint seeking injunctive relief prohibiting CONSOL from unilaterally terminating a group health insurance plan it maintains for the benefit of retired coal miners, and prohibiting CONSOL from communicating with beneficiaries threatening termination of the plan until resolution of the Union's ROD No. 11-0143. United Mine Workers, 16-CV-12506 (S.D. W.Va.) (Compl. Doc. 1). On January 24, 2017, the Union Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint to add as defendants, Helvetia Coal Company, Island Creek Coal Company, Laurel Run Mining Company and CONSOL Amonate Facility, LLC, and sought the same injunctive relief against these defendants as was sought against CONSOL in the original complaint. Id. (Am. Compl., Doc. 16).

         On March 17, 2017, Judge Faber issued an Opinion and Order granting the Union Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction; granting CONSOL's motion to dismiss as Defendants CONSOL's four subsidiary companies; and denying CONSOL's motion to transfer. Id. (Doc. 50); Int'l Union v. Consol Energy, Inc., 243 F.Supp.3d 755, 767 (S.D. W.Va. 2017).

         After dismissing the four subsidiary companies, who were signatories to the 2011 NBCWA, for lack of personal ...


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