LMRDA Preempts State Whistleblower Statute, says New Jersey Court

The N.J. Superior Court, Appellate Division, held Feb. 15 that a claim by union employee Regina Dzwonar that she was discharged for exposing what she considered to be union violations of the Labor-Management Reporting & Disclosure Act of 1959 cannot be brought under state law. Dzwonar’s claim under N.J.’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act against the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Int’l Union Local 54 in Atlantic City was preempted by the LMRDA, according to Judge Donald S. Coburn.

LMRDA, the court said, requires that “elected union officials be responsive to the will of their union membership-electorate.” This in turn requires that elected officials have the authority and ability to discharge employees of the union in policymaking positions, such as Dzwonar, who they believe ill-serve the membership, the court explained. To allow state actions contesting such discharges, the court said, would undermine the strong federal policy favoring union democracy embodied in the LMRDA.  CEPA prohibits, among other things, retaliatory action against an employee who objects to an activity or practice the employee “reasonably believes … is in violation of law.”

In 1996, Dzwonar was employed by Local 54 as a full-time arbitration officer. After many intense disagreements about union business with the local president, Dzwonar was discharged. She sued the local under CEPA, claiming that she had been discharged because she had brought to light what she alleged were violations of LMRDA by the local. Specifically, the court said, she maintained that she had repeatedly advised the local president that the local union’s by-laws and the LMRDA were being violated by the executive board’s failure to share information with the general membership concerning matters such as the hiring of staff and their salaries. She thought this might be remedied by reading executive board minutes at general membership meetings, and sent the suggestion in a memo to executive board members.  The provisions of the LMRDA that Dzwonar claimed she reasonably believed were violated, the court noted, were those assuring members equal rights to participate in deliberations, express their views, and vote on union business.

Judges James M. Havey and Dennis J. Braithwaite concurred in the opinion. William T. Josem of Cleary & Josem, represented Local 54. Nelson C. Johnson represented Dzwonar. [BNA 2/26/02]