Judge Allows Florida Teamsters to Sue Union in Discrimination Suit

U.S. Dist. Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich in Tampa ruled Apr. 24 that Surgret U. Doss, a former UPS driver, may sue the Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters and IBT Local 79 for breaching their duties of fair representation in handling his claim that racial bias motivated his termination. Doss alleges that Local 79 mishandled his grievance by failing to assert his discrimination concerns at the termination hearing and discrediting him when he attempted to raise those concerns on his own. Also, IBT may have breached its duty to Doss by improperly denying his appeal of the decision to uphold his termination, Kovachevich found denying the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

According to the opinion, Doss asserted that on Oct. 5, 1998, he stopped his truck at a McDonald’s to call the office to ask if another driver needed help. He claimed a supervisor then came to his truck and accused him of taking an unauthorized break, which amounted to dishonesty, one of UPS’s “seven cardinal sins” that could lead to termination. Doss said the supervisor threatened his job, called him “son,” and ordered him to stand at the back of his truck.

According to UPS, the supervisor approached the truck because he heard loud music and saw Doss using the phone. Doss seemed nervous, and initially said he was calling the office, but later said he was calling someone else, UPS maintained. An argument ensued, and the supervisor fired him for taking an unauthorized break and insubordination. Within a week, the court said, UPS sent Doss three letters: a warning letter for insubordination, a termination letter for insubordination, and a termination letter for dishonesty.

Doss filed a grievance, claiming his discharge violated the collective bargaining agreement. Doss’s claim went before a regional grievance committee that included three Teamsters and three UPS employees. The panel upheld his discharge for dishonesty. Local 79 requested an appeal to the national grievance committee on Doss’s behalf, but Doss received no additional information regarding the appeal, the court recounted. Doss sued IBT and Local 79, alleging they violated their duty of fair representation in processing his grievance.

The court rejected IBT’s argument that it could not have violated any duty to represent Doss because it was not his certified collective bargaining representative. The court acknowledged that IBT owed Doss no duty under the collective bargaining agreement because it was not a party to the contract and that IBT was not responsible for the acts of its affiliated locals. However, Doss argued that IBT did have some control over whether the national appeal was accepted. IBT ordinarily would consider those appeals stemming from cases involving an interpretation of the National Master Contract between IBT and UPS. Agreeing that the terms of that agreement might have been at issue, the court said “Plaintiff has identified a material factual dispute in this case, because it is possible that the Teamsters improperly denied his appeals, which was a function of the Teamsters and not Local 79.”

The court also rejected IBT’s argument that it could not have violated Title VII, the state civil rights law, or Section 1981 because it was unaware of Doss’s race. Doss presented some evidence that IBT might have known his race, the court said, denying the union’s motion for summary judgment on the issue.

Further, Doss argued that the local breached its duty of fair representation by mishandling his grievance. According to Doss, Local 79 never asserted his discrimination complaints at the termination hearing, even though the representative was aware of Doss’s suspicions. In addition, when Doss informed the grievance panel of his race discrimination concerns, the representative spoke up after him and discredited his opinion.

The court found unpersuasive Local 79’s argument that Doss was unable to show a prima facie case of intentional discrimination because he could not show that the local treated similarly situated whites differently. “Even if Plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of racial discrimination based on the tradition framework, the ultimate question is whether Local 79 mishandled [his] grievance based on any discrimination,” the court said. Denying the motion for summary judgment, the court found there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether racial bias was a factor in the handling of Doss’s grievance and whether he was fairly represented.

The court also rejected Local 79’s assertion that Doss’s fair representation claim was time-barred. There was conflicting information as to whether Doss was fired for insubordination or dishonesty, the court said, and each infraction carried a different appeals process. Given the conflicting information, a reasonable fact finder could decide the statute of limitation was tolled while Doss pursued the available internal remedies.  Lynn H. Cole of Lynn Hamilton Cole, P.A., in Tampa represented Doss. Thomas J. Pilacek of Thomas J. Pilacek & Associates in Winter Springs, Fla., represented IBT and Local 79. [BNA 5/3/01]