Can I Sue My Union if it Fails to Pursue My Discrimination Complaint?

If you are the victim of employment discrimination, you normally have the right to seek damages under New York State and New York City laws. If you are a member of a union that has a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the employer, then federal law also comes into play. Among other things, this means that your discrimination case may need to be heard in federal, rather than state, court.

Judge Rules Discrimination Charges Against S.I. Hospital Belong in Federal Court

Take this recent decision by a federal judge in Brooklyn. The plaintiff initially filed her lawsuit in state court, alleging violations of the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and its local counterpart, the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL). The plaintiff previously worked as a dispatcher and emergency medical technician for a hospital on Staten Island. The hospital's workforce is unionized, and the plaintiff is a member of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

About seven years into her employment, the hospital reassigned the defendant's job function to Long Island. The hospital then offered the plaintiff a transfer to a new job at the Staten Island facility. The plaintiff accepted the transfer.

According to the terms of the hospital's CBA with SEUI, the plaintiff was classified as a “probationary employee” during the first 90 days of her new assignment. According to the hospital, this meant she could be fired “for any reason” during the probationary term. The hospital subsequently terminated the plaintiff after supervisors said they caught her sleeping on the job twice.

After her termination, the plaintiff notified the union and the hospital that these two incidents were the result of her sleep apnea, a medical condition protected under state and local disability laws. The plaintiff also alleged her firing violated the CBA because she retained her seniority during the “lateral transfer” to hew new job, which meant she could only be fired “for cause.”

Under duress, the union pursued a grievance on the plaintiff's behalf. When the union declined to seek arbitration, the plaintiff complained to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that SEIU failed to properly represent her interests. The NLRB declined to take any action, prompting the plaintiff to file her present lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court.

The defendants–the hospital and the union–removed the case to federal court. The federal judge now overseeing the case denied the plaintiff's motion to return the case to state court. Although the complaint technically alleges no violation of federal law–normally a pretext for hearing a case in federal court–the judge found that the plaintiff's claims inevitably involve federal law. Specifically, her claim against the union is not based on the NYSHRL or NYCHRL, but rather the National Labor Relations Act, which imposes on all labor organizations the “duty of fair representation.” Furthermore, the plaintiff's allegations against the hospital are “substantially dependent” on interpreting the terms of the CBA, which is unquestionably governed by federal law.

Speak with a New York City Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

Bringing an employment discrimination case is never simple. If you are a union employee, there are additional legal questions you will need to address. This is why it is invaluable to work with an experienced New York employment attorney. Contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., today if you have suffered on-the-job discrimination and require advice on what steps to take next.