Recently, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of an employer’s motion for summary judgment denying Plaintiff’s hybrid claim for breach of contract/unfair representation. Smokowicz v, Graphic Packaging Int’l, Inc., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94099 (E.D. Pa. 2018). Plaintiff Micheal D. Smokowicz (“Smokowicz”) brought claims for breach of contract against his former employer, Graphic Packaging International, Inc. (“Graphic”) for their alleged violation of § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act; and a claim against his union for failure to provide fair representation under 29 U.S. C. § 159(a). In order for a plaintiff to succeed on a § 301/fair representation claim, the plaintiff must prove both breach of contract and the union’s failure to provide fair representation. The Court determined that Smokowicz failed to prove that the Union breached its duty of fair representation; and thus, the Court was not required to rule on the employer’s alleged breach.
In this present matter, Smokowicz was involved in multiple incidents leading up his termination. Before Smokowicz’s termination, Graphic attempted to terminate him for violating the company’s anti-harassment and violence policy. In lieu of terminating Smokowicz, his union was able to negotiate a Last Chance Agreement which allowed for Smokowicz to return to his previous position under the condition that any future violation of the standard of conduct will be cause for termination. Three years following the Last Chance Agreement Smokowicz was terminated for mislabeling packages. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Smokowicz’s union attended numerous meetings with the Human Resources Department and supervisors at Graphic with the goal of allowing Smokowicz to return to work. After days of negotiating and pleading with Graphic, the Union informed Smokowicz that it believed that it could not prevail in arbitration and that it would not proceed any further with a grievance.
The Court ruled that in order for a claim that a union breached its duty of fair representation, the plaintiff must present evidence demonstrating that the union’s conduct was arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. Previous precedents have defined “arbitrary conduct” as being irrational and being without a rational basis or explanation. Further, mere ineptitude or negligence is not sufficient to establish conduct is “arbitrary.” Under this standard, even if a more experienced representative would have used a different strategy or achieved a different result, the plaintiff cannot successfully claim that the union acted arbitrary.
The standard for bad faith is much more ambiguous, and findings of bad faith “require more than unsupported allegations.” The Third Circuit has held that a plaintiff must show that “the union and its representatives harbored animosity towards the employee; and . . . that animosity manifested itself as a material factor in the union’s handling of the employee’s grievance.” The plaintiff, when claiming bad faith, must present evidence in the record to support such allegations of animus and that the union’s animus towards the plaintiff manifested itself in the handling of the plaintiff’s employment grievance.
Even when viewing the facts in the most favorable light to Smokowicz, the Court determined that he was unable to demonstrate that the Union’s conduct was without a “rational basis or explanation,” or that the Union manifested any animosity towards Smokowicz. The Union had already successfully negotiated Smokowicz’s previous termination, and although it did not pursue a formal grievance regarding his second termination; the Union did not act in bad faith or breach its duty to provide fair representation.
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