Lamb v. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 36

Decision Date25 March 2016
Docket NumberNo. S–15–361,S–15–361
Citation293 Neb. 138,876 N.W.2d 388
Parties Thomas Lamb, appellant, v. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 36 and Michael Robinson, Washington County Sheriff, an individual, appellees.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court

Thomas M. White, C. Thomas White, and Amy S. Jorgensen, of White & Jorgensen, Omaha, for appellant.

Michael P. Dowd, of Dowd, Howard & Corrigan, L.L.C., Omaha, for appellee Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 36.

Charles W. Campbell, of Angle, Murphy & Campbell, P.C., L.L.O., York, for appellee Michael Robinson.

Heavican, C.J., Wright, Connolly, Cassel, and Stacy, JJ.

Heavican

, C.J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Thomas Lamb filed suit against the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 36 (Lodge No. 36) and Michael Robinson, Washington County Sheriff, alleging breach of contract and intentional interference with a business relationship. The district court dismissed Lamb's suit. Lamb appeals. We affirm.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Lamb was employed as a captain in the Washington County, Nebraska, sheriff's office. Lamb was a member of Lodge No. 36, a labor union representing employees of the Washington County sheriff's office. Lodge No. 36 and Washington County entered into a labor agreement on June 28, 2005. Robinson is the sheriff of Washington County.

On April 4, 2013, Robinson informed Lamb that he was under investigation. The reason for this investigation is not in our record. Robinson appointed two sergeants within his office to conduct the investigation into Lamb. Lamb maintained that as officers holding a lesser rank, the appointed officers were not permitted by the labor contract to investigate him; despite this, Lamb was questioned in connection with the investigation. Lamb also requested, from Lodge No. 36, representation during the questioning, but alleged that he did not receive it.

On April 13, 2013, apparently at the instigation of the investigating officers, Robinson took over the investigation into Lamb. On April 19, Lamb's employment was terminated.

On September 2, 2014, Lamb filed suit against Lodge No. 36 and Robinson. He subsequently filed an amended complaint. That complaint sets forth two causes of action.

The first, against Lodge No. 36, alleges breach of contract. Lamb alleges that Lodge No. 36's refusal to provide representation after he requested it was a breach of the labor contract and of Lodge No. 36's duty of fair representation. Lamb further alleges that there was no grievance procedure set forth in the labor contract for grievance against Lodge No. 36 and that therefore, he had no obligation to file one.

The second cause of action is against Robinson for tortious interference with a business relationship. Lamb alleges that Robinson obstructed Lodge No. 36's ability to fulfill its duty of fair representation. Lamb further alleges that Robinson is a member of Lodge No. 36, despite the fact that he is the supervisor and thus prohibited by Neb.Rev.Stat. § 48–816 (Cum.Supp.2014)

from being a member of the same bargaining unit as nonsupervisors.

Lamb sought general and special damages and past and present lost income.

Both Lodge No. 36 and Robinson filed motions to dismiss. Lodge No. 36 argued that the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR), not the district court, had jurisdiction to decide this dispute, and that Lamb waived his cause of action by failing to file a grievance. Robinson argued that the action against him was barred by sovereign immunity.

The district court granted both motions to dismiss. Lamb appeals.

III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

Lamb assigns, restated and consolidated, that the district court erred in dismissing his causes of action against Lodge No. 36 and against Robinson.

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A district court's grant of a motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo.1 When reviewing an order dismissing a complaint, an appellate court accepts as true all facts which are well pled and the proper and reasonable inferences of law and fact which may be drawn therefrom, but not the plaintiff's conclusion.2 To prevail against a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.3 In cases in which a plaintiff does not or cannot allege specific facts showing a necessary element, the factual allegations, taken as true, are nonetheless plausible if they suggest the existence of the element and raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the element or claim.4

V. ANALYSIS
1. ACTION AGAINST LODGE NO. 36

Lamb argues that the district court erred in finding that he needed to file a grievance and that his action should have been filed with the CIR and not with the district court.

(a) Failure to File Grievance

The district court concluded that Lamb's amended complaint should be dismissed because he failed to file a grievance in accordance with the labor contract. On this fact, we disagree.

It is true that generally, individual employees seeking to assert contract grievances attempt to use the grievance procedure agreed to by a union and an employer as a mode of redress.5 And it is true that Lamb did not file such a grievance in this case.

Lamb's failure to file a grievance does not necessitate dismissal of his complaint. Lamb, while no doubt upset over the termination of his employment, did not sue Lodge No. 36 over that termination. Rather, Lamb asserted that Lodge No. 36 breached the labor contract, and further alleged that Robinson tortiously interfered with Lamb's relationship with Lodge No. 36.

When the grievance process set forth in the labor contract is examined, it is clear that it would have been futile for Lamb to file a grievance under that procedure. The procedure deals with a grievance against the county. It does not provide a mechanism for Lamb to complain about Lodge No. 36. There would have been no point in Lamb's filing a grievance with Washington County when his grievance was really with Lodge No. 36.

The district court erred in dismissing Lamb's amended complaint for failure to file a grievance.

(b) District Court Jurisdiction

Lamb also assigns that the district court erred when it concluded that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction and that this action should have been filed before the CIR. Lamb argues that the district court has jurisdiction, because breach of contract claims must be decided by that court and cannot be decided by the CIR.

We agree with Lamb that the CIR has no jurisdiction over breach of contract claims.6 But Lamb does not allege only a claim for a breach of contract. He also alleges that Lodge No. 36 breached its duty of fair representation.

A duty of fair representation claim is implicitly authorized by Neb.Rev.Stat. § 48–824 (Cum.Supp.2014)

.7 That section identifies a variety of "prohibited practices" actionable against not only a public employer, but also a public employee, a public employee organization, or a collective bargaining agent; the CIR has the power to find that any of these parties committed such a prohibited practice. But the jurisdiction for such an action does not lie with the district court; rather, because it involves the determination of a prohibited practice under Nebraska's Industrial Relations Act, jurisdiction lies with the CIR.8

Lamb attempts to characterize his claim against Lodge No. 36 as a breach of contract claim. Lamb's amended complaint alleges that "[Lodge No.] 36 leaders were aware of the interrogation and ... Lamb's request for representation but failed and refused to provide such representation. This failure and refusal by [Lodge No.] 36 was a material breach of [the labor contract] and the duty of fair representation." But, in our view, Lamb is simply restating his breach of the duty of fair representation claim as one for breach of contract. We can only surmise that Lamb attempts this in order to invoke the jurisdiction of the district court and avoid the CIR. But in this case, the proper place for Lamb to bring his complaint against Lodge No. 36 is the CIR.

And while the CIR's power is limited, we are not persuaded that it lacks the ability to provide relief for a breach of the duty of fair representation. While the CIR lacks the authority to grant declaratory or injunctive relief, it is not powerless. Neb.Rev.Stat. § 48–819.01 (Reissue 2010)

provides:

[T]he [CIR] shall have the power and authority to make such findings and to enter such temporary or permanent orders as the [CIR] may find necessary to provide adequate remedies to the injured party or parties, to effectuate the public policy enunciated in section 48–802, and to resolve the dispute.

Moreover, even if Lamb had successfully pled a breach of contract claim, we must conclude that Lamb cannot sue for such claim, because he is not a party to the labor contract. Although Lamb generally alleged that he and Lodge No. 36 were in a "business relationship," he did not allege or otherwise argue that he was a third-party beneficiary to the labor contract.

Because the CIR, and not the district court, is the appropriate body in which to file a breach of fair representation claim against a union, we conclude that the district court did not err in dismissing the action against Lodge No. 36.

2. ACTION AGAINST ROBINSON

The sole issue on appeal with respect to Robinson is whether he is immune from suit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

Under the 11th Amendment, a nonconsenting state is generally immune from suit unless the state has waived its immunity.9 A county is a political subdivision of the state and has subordinate powers of sovereignty conferred by the Legislature.10 But Neb. Const. art. V, § 22

, provides: "The state may sue and be sued, and the Legislature shall provide by law in what manner and in what courts suits shall be brought." Thus, the State may waive its sovereignty in whatever way it sees fit.

The Legislature has waived the State's immunity through the State Tort Claims Act.11 It has similarly waived immunity belonging to...

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