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Decided: March 10, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.

In December 2008, Rebecca Groves and Jonathan Hadden (the “employee-plaintiffs”) began working as retail sales consultants for AT&T in Anderson, South Carolina, and both became members of Communication Works of America (“CWA”). As the exclusive bargaining representative for Groves, Hadden and other members of the union, CWA entered into a collective bargaining agreement with AT&T on March 27, 2010 that remained effective until February 7, 2014. The agreement, which both employee-plaintiffs attended an orientation on (though only Groves recalls receiving a copy), contained a provision concerning the required grievance procedure for allegations of employee termination without just cause.

After having received earlier disciplinary warnings, both employee-plaintiffs were fired in the spring of 2012 as a result of their failure to meet sales goals. A few months later, AT&T discovered that April and May 2012 reports on which sixteen employee terminations were based, including Groves and Hadden’s, were flawed, and consequently AT&T was offering a settlement of either reinstatement along with $2,500, or just $5,000 without reinstatement. CWA did not make any attempt to contact the employee-plaintiffs because they had not filed a grievance nor communicated with CWA in any way. When the plaintiff-employees independently found out about the settlement offers and contacted CWA, their desired offer of $2,500 with reinstatement was no longer available. Consequently, the employee-plaintiffs filed suit against CWA under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, claiming that CWA’s failure to inform them of the offers constituted a breach of the union’s duty of fair representation. However, the district court granted CWA’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the employee-plaintiffs failed to satisfy the threshold requirement of a § 301 claim.

On appeal, the Court considered whether or not conduct by a union that obstructed but did not contribute to the employees’ failure to exhaust all possible contractual remedies for an employer’s action can be properly challenged by a hybrid § 301 claim. Looking to both the Supreme Court’s framing of a hybrid § 301 action in Vaca v. Sipes, as well as relevant cases from sister circuits, the Court held that a hybrid § 301 claim requires both allegation that the union’s conduct breached its duty of fair representation and that such conduct prevented the employee from exhausting his contractual remedies. However, here the employee-plaintiffs do not allege that the CWA prevented them from filing grievances concerning their terminations, and thus by not grieving their terminations, the employee-plaintiffs were not entitled to AT&T’s offer under the collective bargaining agreement. It follow then that CWA’s conduct was not the cause of the employee-plaintiffs failure to exhaust their contractual remedies, and without that causal link, the Court held, there is no basis of a hybrid § 301 suit. Thus, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to CWA.

Full Opinion

Charlotte Harrell