Alaska SC: Union breached duty to terminated employee

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 19, 2011, 4:00am


JUNEAU, Alaska (Legal Newsline) - The Alaska Supreme Court, in a ruling last week, said an airline employee's union breached its duty in refusing to take her grievance to arbitration under its collective bargaining agreement.

The Court, in its opinion filed Friday, affirmed a trial court's decisions and entry of judgment against Deborah Chang-Craft's employer, Alaska Airlines Inc.

Chang-Craft, a customer service agent for the airline, filed suit against it for wrongful termination. Federal law required her to prove, as part of the claim, that her union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, had breached its duty of fair representation when handling her grievance.

During trial, the airline twice moved for a directed verdict, arguing Chang-Craft failed to prove the union had breached its duty of fair representation. The trial court denied the motions.

The jury returned a special verdict finding that the union had breached its duty of fair representation and that the airline had wrongfully terminated Chang-Craft, and awarded $479,111 as compensation.

The airline moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, again arguing Chang-Craft failed to prove the union had breached its duty of fair representation. It alternatively moved for a new trial or remittitur, arguing the damage award was inaccurate. The trial court denied the motions.

The airline appeals the trial court's denials of its motions for a directed verdict, JNOV and a new trial or remittitur.

The Court affirmed the trial court's ruling, saying it did not commit "legal error" or abuse its discretion in denying the motions. Justice Daniel E. Winfree authored the 28-page opinion.

According to the Court, a union breaches its duty of fair representation "only when (the union's) conduct toward a member of the collective bargaining unit is arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith."

The record, the Court said, gives no indication that before issuing its final decision the union actually considered the evidence Chang-Craft set forth in her appeal of its tentative decision. The final decision simply stated that the union "has determined not to process the... grievance further; therefore, we are withdrawing it from the System Board of Adjustment and closing our files."

"When viewed in the light most favorable to Chang-Craft, this unexplained withdrawal of a meritorious grievance, especially after the 15-month delay, suggests the Union simply disregarded Chang-Craft's appeal or at best 'processed (her) grievance in a perfunctory manner,'" the Court wrote.

This can be viewed as "conduct without a rational basis or egregiously unfair," or arbitrary conduct, the Court said.

The justices also point to the testimony of Jerri Lochner, the union steward who originally filed Chang-Craft's grievance. Lochner said in her opinion that the union did not fairly represent the woman at the step-one grievance hearing.

The jury, the Court said, could "reasonably infer" that Lochner communicated her concerns about that hearing to the union's general chair, Don Welch.

The Court said the jury also could determine from the testimony of Robert Hartnett, the airline's labor services manager, that Welch failed to provide him with pertinent statements and information.

The jury then could reasonably infer that when the union made its tentative decision to withdraw Chang-Craft's grievance from arbitration, it was aware of its representatives' handling of the two hearings, and it could take that into account when looking at the care the union should have given to both its tentative decision and its rejection of the woman's appeal, the Court said.

"All of this supports the conclusion that the jury could reasonably find the Union failed to take special care of Chang-Craft's grievance when it withdrew it from arbitration without explanation, and the Union handled the grievance in an arbitrary and egregious manner," the Court concluded.

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