Leahy v. Local 1526, American Federation of State, County and Mun. Employees

Decision Date05 March 1987
Citation399 Mass. 341,504 N.E.2d 602
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Wayne Soini, Boston, for defendants.

Frank J. Teague, Boston, for plaintiff.

John B. Cochran, Boston, for Labor Relations Com'n, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


HENNESSEY, Chief Justice.

The plaintiff, William Leahy, brought this action on August 18, 1981, in the Superior Court against Local 1526, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and several of its officers (union) for breach of the duty of fair representation as the exclusive statutory bargaining agent. A judge granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment establishing liability of the union. After the parties filed various stipulations and memoranda, and after a hearing, a different judge assessed damages in the amount of $11,303.71, with interest from August 18, 1981. The union appeals, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction because the question of the duty of fair representation is within the primary jurisdiction of the Labor Relations Commission (commission), that the plaintiff's action should have been barred on the basis of res judicata, and that the second judge erred in calculating the plaintiff's damages. We granted the union's application for direct appellate review. We affirm the judgment.

We summarize the facts as found by the first judge. The plaintiff was employed by the Boston Public Library as a building custodian from May, 1956, until September, 1983. Initially, the plaintiff worked as a temporary, part-time employee. In 1958, he became a permanent, part-time employee, and in 1962 he became a permanent, full-time employee.

In 1967, the union became, through a collective bargaining agreement with the city of Boston (city), the exclusive bargaining agent for library employees, including the plaintiff. In 1973, the union filed and later settled a grievance with the library concerning unpaid benefits due the plaintiff without informing the plaintiff of this grievance filed on his behalf.

In 1977, the plaintiff advised the union that the library credited him with seniority, on which salary, vacations, and sick leave were based, only from the date of the 1973 grievance settlement between the library and the union. The plaintiff argued that his seniority should date from either 1958, when he became a permanent employee, or from 1962, when he became a full-time employee. The union agreed with the plaintiff, and presented the grievance to the library. The union proceeded through the first three steps of the four-step grievance procedure defined in the collective bargaining agreement, 1 but was not successful in resolving the grievance.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, the union had forty-five days to submit the grievance to arbitration. See note 1 supra. The union did not file a demand for arbitration until September 29, 1978, more than four months beyond the deadline. On January 31, 1979, the arbitrator held a hearing in which the library argued that the union had waived the plaintiff's rights because of the untimely demand for arbitration. The arbitrator heard no other evidence, reserved judgment, and ordered the parties to file briefs on the issue of timeliness by March 22, 1979. The union failed to file a brief on the plaintiff's behalf. 2

On May 21, 1979, the plaintiff filed a civil action in the Superior Court seeking declaratory relief against the city and the union. After learning of the plaintiff's suit, the union notified the plaintiff that it was withdrawing from representing him in the grievance procedure. On August 8, 1979, the plaintiff filed a charge of prohibited practice against the union with the commission. The plaintiff charged the union with several prohibited practices, including the union's retaliatory withdrawal from representing the plaintiff, its untimeliness in demanding arbitration, and several prior incidents. On September 21, 1979, the commission issued a complaint against the union for its retaliatory withdrawal from representing Leahy, noting that the case before the arbitrator was still pending. The commission dismissed "all other allegations on the grounds that consideration of such allegations is barred by the Commission's six month statute of limitations."

On October 30, 1979, the plaintiff and the union agreed to settle the prohibited practice charge, with the plaintiff agreeing to a dismissal without prejudice of his action in Superior Court in return for the union's agreement to continue representing him at the arbitration proceedings. On June 2, 1980, the arbitrator held a second hearing, and on July 24, 1980, the arbitrator rendered his decision that the plaintiff's grievance was not arbitrable because of the union's untimely demand for arbitration. On August 18, 1981, the plaintiff commenced this action against the union, seeking damages arising from the union's breach of its duty of representation.

1. The union contends that primary jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims rests with the commission, and, therefore, that the judge erred in not dismissing the plaintiff's claims. 3 The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is founded on the principle "which counsels a court to stay its hand when the issue in litigation is within the special competence of an agency." School Comm. of Greenfield v. Greenfield Educ. Ass'n, 385 Mass. 70, 76, 431 N.E.2d 180 (1982). "By permitting an agency to apply its expertise to the statutory scheme which it is charged to enforce, courts preserve the integrity of the administrative process while sparing the judiciary the burden of reviewing administrative proceedings in a piecemeal fashion." Murphy v. Administrator of the Div. of Personnel Admin., 377 Mass. 217, 220, 386 N.E.2d 211 (1979). See generally A.J. Cella, Administrative Law and Practice § 1725 (1986).

Labor relations is an area in which the concerns of primary jurisdiction are commonly implicated. The National Labor Relations Act, for example, vests broad authority and discretion in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to deal in the first instance with labor disputes. See San Diego Bldg. Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 79 S.Ct. 773, 3 L.Ed.2d 775 (1959). The Massachusetts Labor Relations Act, covering public employees, similarly empowers the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission. See G.L. c. 150E, § 11 (1984 ed.); School Comm. of Greenfield, supra, 385 Mass. at 76, 431 N.E.2d 180. In interpreting the Massachusetts statute, we frequently look to similar portions of the Federal statute. See, e.g., Norton v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth., 369 Mass. 1, 2, 336 N.E.2d 854 (1975); Reilly v. Local 589, Amalgamated Transit Union, 22 Mass.App.Ct. 558, 575, 495 N.E.2d 856 (1986).

The United States Supreme Court has held that the courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the NLRB over breaches of a union's duty of fair representation. Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 186, 87 S.Ct. 903, 914, 17 L.Ed.2d 842 (1967). While noting the importance of the NLRB's primary jurisdiction in most areas, the Court articulated several reasons why, in cases concerning the duty of fair representation, courts would continue to have concurrent jurisdiction with the NLRB. The duty of fair representation, the Court noted, had first been developed by the courts, and subsequently adopted by the NLRB. Id. at 181-182, 87 S.Ct. at 912-913. Availability of the courts was important, the Court continued, because of the danger that individual rights, which are subordinated to the collective interests of employees under the statute, would be unprotected by exclusive NLRB jurisdiction over arbitrary or discriminatory union action. Id. at 182-183, 87 S.Ct. at 912-913. Moreover, the Court reasoned, the NLRB brought no greater expertise for fair representation cases than did the courts. Id. at 181, 87 S.Ct. at 912. Finally, the Court pointed out that the courts had jurisdiction under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act over a suit by an employee against an employer for breach of contract. As a result, the courts would already be forced to consider many of the same issues as breaches of the duty of fair representation. Id. at 187-188, 87 S.Ct. at 915-916.

The union, and the commission as amicus curiae, contend that the factors which support concurrent jurisdiction in Vaca v. Sipes, do not exist under the Massachusetts statute, and that, therefore, we should not follow the Federal rule, but should instead conclude that breaches of fair representation fall within the primary jurisdiction of the commission. In most cases concerning the duty of fair representation, we agree that the dispute should be presented in the first instance to the commission. General Laws c. 150E (1984 ed.) creates a scheme in which the commission is granted broad powers to resolve labor disputes, including those over the duty of fair representation. General Laws c. 150E, § 5, provides: "The exclusive representative shall have the right to act for and negotiate agreements covering all employees in the unit and shall be responsible for representing the interests of all such employees without discrimination and without regard to employee organization membership." Section 10(b ) provides in part: "It shall be a prohibited practice for an employee organization or its designated agent to: (1) Interfere, restrain, or coerce any employer or employee in the exercise of any right guaranteed under this chapter ... (3) Refuse to participate in good faith in the mediation, fact finding and arbitration procedures set forth in sections eight and nine." Section 11 grants the commission broad powers to investigate and to resolve complaints of practices prohibited by § 10. The legislative...

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