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Can I be Compelled to Arbitrate an Employment Dispute if My Union Declined to Pursue a Grievance?

Can I be Compelled to Arbitrate an Employment Dispute if My Union Declined to Pursue a Grievance?

Many New Yorkers belong to a labor union. Such unions negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) setting the terms and conditions of employment with a given employer. Among other things, CBAs typically contain provisions regarding the handling of employee grievances, such as allegations of discrimination or wrongful termination. These grievance procedures are enforceable under federal law and may affect an individual employee's right to file a lawsuit against the employer.

Judge Rules Employee May Sue if Union Rejected Her Request for Arbitration Against Ex-Employer

What happens when a union declines to enforce its procedures against the employer? How does that affect the individual employee's rights? A recent decision by a federal judge in Brooklyn offered some answers to these questions.

This lawsuit, Canales v. ACP Facility Services, Inc., involves a plaintiff who worked as a cleaner/housekeeper for the defendant. During her employment, she was a member of a union that had a CBA with the defendant.

The plaintiff's daughter also worked for the defendant. In 2016, the daughter filed a discrimination lawsuit against the defendant, which was ultimately resolved out of court. However, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant engaged in multiple acts of illegal retaliation against her in response to her daughter's lawsuit. This included her termination.

The plaintiff filed a grievance with her union. Under the CBA, the union had the right to seek arbitration for allegations of discrimination and wrongful termination. The union ultimately decided the plaintiff's grievance “lacked merit” and declined to pursue arbitration on her behalf.

The plaintiff then sued the defendant directly in federal court. The defense moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the CBA still applied to the plaintiff's grievances. The judge overseeing the case disagreed.

The judge explained that under binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, a CBA clause that “clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate [discrimination] claims” is enforceable. The judge also said the Supreme Court never addressed the specific scenario presented in this case — namely, whether an employee could be forced to arbitrate when a union that “controlled access” to arbitration refused to intervene. Noting that other judges in New York had similarly answered such questions in the negative, the judge here similarly “declined to compel arbitration.”

The judge did, however, dismiss the plaintiff's lawsuit as it was not clear from her complaint that she raised her specific legal claims, which involved violation of New York employment discrimination laws, with the union prior to filing her lawsuit. By law, she must “exhaust” such “administrative remedies” first. The judge said the plaintiff was free to re-file her lawsuit if she has, in fact, exhausted such remedies or “re-file her claim” with the union.

Speak with a NYC Wrongful Termination Lawyer Today

Labor unions offer important protections for thousands of workers in New York City. But union contracts may also complicate an individual worker's ability to seek justice for illegal discriminatory acts in the courts. If you are unsure of your own legal position, it is best to seek advice from a qualified New York City employment law attorney. Contact the Nisar Law Group, P.C., to schedule a free consultation with an attorney today.

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