Appellate Victory for New England Member’s Election Suit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled Feb. 19 that the Dep’t of Labor’s explanation for rebuffing a union member’s challenge to the United Bhd. of Carpenters’ election procedures raised “serious question” regarding DOL’s adherence to its “own articulated policies” and demanded that the decision be presented in a “more reasoned fashion” The court’s decision stemmed from a challenge to the election of officers of the Carpenters’ New England Reg’l Council. Thomas Harrington, a UBC member, maintained that, since CNWRC performed functions and purposes traditionally accorded to local unions, its officers should be elected in accordance with the procedures governing local elections. Harrington argued that the officers should be selected by members in a direct election by secret ballot, rather than by a vote of delegates who are elected by members of local unions.

Harrington filed suit under the Labor-Mgmt. Reporting & Disclosure Act of 1959 (a.k.a. the Landrum Griffin Act) challenging DOL’s refusal to order CNWRC to hold a new election as a local union. While the district court dismissed the suit, the First Circuit found what it called an apparent “inconsistency between [DOL’s] approach” to this case and its “regulation and prior decisions.” The “paucity of explanation hinders judicial review, requiring a remand to DOL to reopen, thereby providing [DOL] an opportunity to better explain [its] position,” the court said in a decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra L. Lynch (1st. Cir., Clinton), joined by U.S. Circuit Judge Kermit V. Lipez (1st Cir., Clinton).

DOL said that while CNWRC’s bylaws “appear to invest it with some of the powers and functions the locals traditionally possessed,” it could not conclude that the council “is no longer an intermediate body entitled to elect its officers in accordance with either of the two choices prescribed by Congress” in LMRDA Section 401(d). That section requires that officers of intermediate bodies “be elected not less often than once every four years by secret ballot among the members in good standing or by labor organization officers representative of such members who have been elected by secret ballot.”

Taking issue with DOL’s reasoning, the court questioned why the statement of reasoning failed to cite prior DOL regulatory interpretations of the LMRDA and why it failed to distinguish Harrington’s case from previous decisions in which it sued to force an entity purporting to be an intermediate body to conduct elections. The majority stopped short of calling DOL’s decision arbitrary and capricious, but U.S. Circuit Judge Juan R. Torruella (1st Cir., Reagan) did not. In a concurring opinion, he argued that the position should be classified as such and put aside since DOL’s “decision in this case does not square with [its] established policies and practices.”  DOL provided no reasoned basis for the inconsistency, he said. However, he continued: “Since my view does not command a majority of this panel, I must await, with morbid curiosity, a persuasive clarification of the reasons for [DOL’s] decision.”

Renee J. Bushey of Feinberg, Campbell & Zack in Boston represented Harrington. J. Matthew McCracken argued the case for DOL.