Wright v. Over-The-Road and City Transfer Drivers, Helpers, Dockmen and Warehousemen, Local Union No. 41, Intern. Broth. of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, OVER-THE-ROAD

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Citation945 S.W.2d 481
Docket NumberNo. 41,I,Nos. WD,OVER-THE-ROAD,41,s. WD
PartiesSerita WRIGHT, Appellant/Cross-Respondent, v.AND CITY TRANSFER DRIVERS, HELPERS, DOCKMEN AND WAREHOUSEMEN, Local Unionnternational Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, Respondent/Cross-Appellants. 50492, WD 50501.
Decision Date25 March 1997

Lynne Jaben Bratcher, Marie Lynne Gockel, Kansas City, for appellant/cross-respondent.

Donald R. Aubry, Kansas City, for respondent/cross-appellants.

Before ULRICH, C.J., P.J., and SPINDEN and EDWIN H. SMITH, JJ.

PER CURIAM.

Serita Wright (Wright) brought suit, inter alia, for defamation and for sexual harassment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act against Over-the-Road and City Transfer Drivers, Helpers, Dockmen and Warehousemen, Local Union No. 41, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America (the Union) for the manner in which it handled her sexual harassment complaint against fellow employee and union member, Dale Dorner (Dorner). Wright appeals from a judgment granting the Union a directed verdict on her defamation claim and reducing the damages on her jury verdict for sexual harassment. The Union cross-appeals Wright's jury verdict for sexual harassment.

Wright asserts four points on her appeal. Point I deals with her defamation claim against the Union, and Points II--IV deal with her sexual harassment claim against the Union. In Point I, she claims the trial court erred by granting the Union's motion for a directed verdict and failing to grant her motion for new trial. In Points II and III, she alleges that the trial court erred in reducing her actual damages award on her sexual harassment claim from $250,000 to $50,000 based upon the damage cap found in 42 U.S.C. § 1981. In Point IV, she claims that the trial court erred in granting the Union's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict setting aside Wright's award of punitive damages. The Union asserts four points on its cross-appeal, all dealing with Wright's jury verdict on her sexual harassment claim. Points I and II address the Union's allegations of jury instruction error. In Point III, the Union charges that the trial court erred in allowing Wright to introduce inadmissible evidence. Point IV alleges that the trial court erred in not granting the Union's motion for a directed verdict at the close of Wright's evidence or in the alternative, the Union's motion for JNOV.

As to Wright's defamation claim, we find that the trial court erred in granting the Union's motion for directed verdict on the basis that statements published in the course of a union grievance proceeding are absolutely privileged, finding instead, that in Missouri, statements made in such a proceeding only enjoy a qualified privilege. However, we find the error was not reversible error in that there was no evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that the alleged false and defamatory statements in question were published by the Union with "actual malice," which is necessary to defeat a qualified privilege and to make a submissible case of defamation against the Union. Thus, we affirm the trial court's judgment entering a directed verdict for the Union on Wright's claim of defamation.

As to Wright's Title VII hostile-work-environment sexual-harassment claim against the Union, we find the trial court erred in denying the Union's motion for directed verdict at the close of Wright's evidence, or in the alternative, its motion for JNOV. We reverse and remand because we find that there was insufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that: 1) the Union's response to Wright's sexual harassment complaint against Dorner was unreasonable and inadequate to cause his sexual harassment to cease, a prerequisite to a union's Title VII liability for sexual harassment when the basis for the claim is the union's alleged refusal to represent the union member on a grievance concerning the sexual harassment; and, 2) the Union retaliated against Wright for pursuing her sexual harassment complaint against Dorner by knowingly publishing false and defamatory statements about her in the union grievance proceeding.

Facts

Serita Wright began working as a truck driver for United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS), in August, 1991. After her first month of employment, Wright became a member of the Union, which serves as the bargaining representative for local bargaining unit employees for UPS. The collective bargaining agreement between the Union and UPS provides for employee grievances with a procedure that has various levels of dispute hearings, concluding with a Two-state Joint Committee hearing.

The Union and UPS are parties to a collective bargaining agreement governing the relationship between UPS and its employees. This agreement provides a grievance procedure for the adjustment of employment disputes arising under the collective bargaining agreement. Disputes that cannot be resolved at the local level proceed to hearing before various levels of joint committees. These committees are composed of equal numbers of members appointed by the Union and from UPS management. None of the committee members in a particular case can be a member or representative of the local involved in the dispute or a member of management at the terminal where the grievance arose.

After a fellow employee and union member, Dale Dorner, began making sexually offensive comments to Wright, she complained to her assigned union steward, Mario Rojas. Rojas, who was responsible for representing union members on employment issues, met with Wright to discuss the harassment. Upon learning of her complaint, Rojas indicated he would speak to Dorner about his conduct and assured Wright the situation would be taken care of. At this first meeting, Wright did not request a grievance form or that a formal grievance be filed seeking Dorner's termination.

The day after her meeting with Rojas, Wright requested a grievance form from him and that the Union file a formal grievance concerning her complaint against Dorner. Rojas refused to provide her with a grievance form as she requested. He advised her that he would handle her complaint and that she could not file a grievance. He also advised her that: "You've already pissed a bunch of guys off over what's going on now. I've got some guys that are going to say that when a male driver grabbed his penis and said you asked could you grab it, too." When she was denied a grievance form by Rojas, she immediately obtained one from UPS management, which she filed with management unsigned by the Union, requesting the termination of Dorner and for Rojas to step down as a union steward, because of his lack of cooperation.

UPS suspended, then fired Dorner, after an investigation and meeting between members of management, Dorner, and Rojas concerning Dorner's conduct. After Dorner's termination, the Union requested a joint committee hearing to challenge his termination as provided for in its collective bargaining agreement with UPS. Dorner, Wright, Wright's husband, union officials, and the six-member committee were all present at the hearing. This hearing was informal, with no rules of evidence, administration of oaths, opportunity for cross-examination, or summoning of witnesses. At the hearing, a union business agent, Harold McLaughlin, presented statements in Dorner's defense that Dorner had solicited from ten of his co-workers. The statements suggested that Dorner's actions toward Wright were not unwelcome in that Wright, herself, engaged in offensive conduct and used foul language, so Dorner should not be disciplined for similar conduct.

After the hearing, Dorner was reinstated by the Committee. However, nine months later, he was terminated for sexually assaulting a customer off-premises, which termination was subsequently upheld by the Committee. After Wright made her complaint to Rojas, there were no further incidents of sexual harassment by Dorner of Wright.

Wright originally brought suit against the Union for "Sexual Discrimination," "Battery," "Breach of Duty of Fair Representation," and "Defamation." The claim of battery was voluntarily dismissed before trial. At trial, the court dismissed Wright's separate claim of breach of unfair union representation from which she does not appeal. At trial, the court also dismissed Wright's claim for defamation from which she does appeal. Wright's claim of sexual discrimination was submitted to the jury. The jury found in favor of Wright on this claim and awarded $250,000 actual and $400,000 punitive damages. Post-trial, the trial court sustained the Union's motion for JNOV as to the punitive damages award. The trial court also sustained the Union's motion for JNOV as to the award of actual damages, reducing the amount of actual damages to $50,000 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981a (b)(3)(A). The court overruled Wright's motion for new trial on her defamation claim, as well as the Union's motion for JNOV or in the alternative for a new trial as to the sexual harassment verdict.

Wright's Appeal
I. Grant of Union's Motion for Directed Verdict and Denial

of Wright's Motion for New Trial as to Wright's

Defamation Claim

In Point I, on her claim for defamation, Wright contends that the trial court erred in granting the Union's motion for a directed verdict at the close of her evidence and in failing to grant her motion for new trial. The trial court, in sustaining the Union's motion for directed verdict and in denying Wright's motion for new trial, held that the Two-state Joint Committee hearing was a quasi-judicial proceeding, and, as such, the Union enjoyed absolute immunity as to any false and defamatory statements published in the course thereof. Wright contends that the Union was not...

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