Pittsburgh Boss Loses Appeal to Expand LMRDA Title III Rights

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled Sept. 17 that a former union business agent who was removed from his post after the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Int’l Union came under federal supervision cannot seek monetary damages under the Labor-Mgmt. Reporting & Disclosure Act’s trusteeship provision. LMRDA’s trusteeship provision does not “allow a private cause of action for individual damages flowing from the termination of an appointed employee,” the U.S. Circuit Judge Theodore A. McKee (3d Cir., Clinton) ruled in a case of first impression. Relief under that provision “must be sought on behalf of the local union organization and the entire membership must reap the benefits,” the court said.

The suit was brought by George Ross, who held an appointed position as a full-time, salaried business agent for HERE Local 57 in Pittsburgh before HERE and the Dep’t of Justice entered into a consent decree to end corrupt union practices. A court-appointed monitor assigned to supervise union efforts to eliminate ties to organized crime in 1997 brought charges of corruption against several Local 57 officers and had the local placed under trusteeship.  The trustees established new election guidelines in 1998 that barred Ross from running for elected office because he failed to pay his union dues. They also effectively eliminated Ross’ position as a full-time, salaried business agent. He challenged the validity of the trusteeship, which dissolved in 1998, requesting temporary reinstatement, new elections, and monetary damages.  Ross sued under Title III of the LMRDA, the Landrum-Griffin Act, which governs the creation and maintenance of trusteeships by labor organizations. U.S. Magistrate Judge Francis X. Caiazza (W.D. Pa.) granted HERE’s motion for summary judgment, noting that Title III does not allow individual relief because it was intended to protect local unions, not their individual members.

When the case went before the Third Circuit, HERE objected to the court’s review on procedural grounds. The union maintained that, in the proceedings before the district court, Ross failed to argue the merits of the claim that Title III does not provide a cause of action for individual relief. McKee acknowledged that, absent compelling circumstances, appeals courts will not consider issues raised for the first time on appeal. However, the court decided to proceed with the case, saying it contained significant issues that warranted consideration “on the merits, and not upon the procedural grounds.” The “case at bar has important implications for the field of labor law, and raises a question of first impression in this circuit,” the court said.

Prompted by “ambiguous statutory language,” the court conducted an in-depth review of the LMRDA’s legislative history. “Nothing in the legislative history of Title III suggests that Congress contemplated an individual bringing suit for compensatory damages arising from the loss of an appointed union position under that title,” the court determined.  “The statutory scheme of the LMRDA strongly suggests that the individual rights that Ross seeks to vindicate must be redressed under Title I,” which, the court said, was added to the law specifically to address the rights of
individual union members. A union member’s right to run for elective office is protected under Title I, but Ross sought relief solely under Title III, the court said. “We are not persuaded by Ross’ attempts to secure compensation for a claimed violation of Title I under Title III,” it concluded.

U.S. Circuit Judges Jane R. Roth (3d Cir., H.W. Bush) and Marjorie O. Rendell (3d Cir., Clinton) joined in the opinion. Thomas M. Castello with Plunkett & Cooney in Pittsburgh represented Ross. Richard L. Stopper Jr. with Rotatori, Gragel & Stopper in Cleveland represented HERE. [BNA 10/22/01]