Sixth Circuit Decides Hybrid § 301 Fair Representation Claim

Chillicothe Telephone Company terminated repair technician Jason Blesedell from his job of sixteen years for falsifying a timecard and impersonating a customer in telephone calls to the company. Blesedell had reported working on buried cables for four hours in the afternoon when work orders did not exist for that work and his GPS showed he had gone home early. The company met with Blesedell and his union representative to discuss the discrepancy. Following the meeting Blesedell called in and asked a dispatcher to change a work ticket to correspond to the story he had given the company at the meeting. The company believed that Blesedell made additional calls posing as a customer in order to manufacture evidence to address the company’s suspicions. Following his termination Blesedell filed a grievance but the union decided not to pursue arbitration, primarily because Blesedell’s version of events was not credible and conflicted with the evidence.

Blesedell filed a hybrid § 301/fair-representation claim, alleging the company breached the collective bargaining agreement in violation of § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, by discharging Blesedell without just cause, and that the union did not fairly represent Blesedell in the grievance process.

This case is a prototypical hybrid § 301 case. Hybrid claims require proof of both breach of the union’s duty of fair representation and breach of the collective bargaining agreement by the employer. Employees may prove breach of the union’s duty by showing that the union’s actions or omissions during the grievance process were arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith. Arbitrariness, discrimination, and bad faith each provides a separate route by which a plaintiff may prove breach. In addition to proving arbitrary, discriminatory, or bad-faith conduct, a hybrid-claim plaintiff must prove that a union’s actions or omissions “more than likely affected” the outcome of the grievance procedure.  Because a hybrid claim requires proof of both breach of the union’s duty and breach of the collective bargaining agreement by the employer, the entire claim fails absent a finding that the union breached its duty of fair representation.

A union acts arbitrarily only if its conduct “is so far outside a wide range of reasonableness as to be irrational.” Air Line Pilots Ass’n, Int’l v. O’Neill, 499 U.S. 65, 67 (1991). The duty of fair representation requires a union to undertake a reasonable investigation to defend a union member, not an error-free one. Here, the union investigated the facts surrounding the grounds for termination and found that the termination would not be overturned through arbitration. Moreover, the court found, none of the union’s alleged failures in the investigation would have affected the outcome of Blesedell’s grievance.

The moral of the story for employees is simple – do your job every day and don’t lie to your employer.

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