Ex-Long Island Boss’ Landrum-Griffin Suit Allowed to Move Forward

U.S. Dist. Judge Naomi R. Buchwald (S.D.N.Y., Clinton) ruled Feb. 20 that Sondra Messina, an elected delegate removed from office by bosses of Service Employees Int’l Union Local 1199 (a.k.a., Nat’l Health & Human Serv. Employees Union), can go forward with her claims under the Labor-Mgmt. Reporting & Disclosure Act (a.k.a., Landrum-Griffin Act) that she was retaliated against for criticizing union bosses. Although LMRDA does not protect union officers such as Messina, Buchwald said retaliatory actions against officers that chill the free expression of critical ideas or deprive members of their chosen representative, will violate members’ rights to free speech and to democratic governance of their union, which Buchwald characterized as the underlying objectives of LMRDA.

However, Buchwald rejected Messina’s claim that Local 1199 violated her free speech rights under the LMRDA when it published in its newspaper a letter signed by Messina and 70 rank-and-file members that had been edited to omit the “more personal attacks” included in the original letter. Other than in exceptional circumstances, a union member has no free speech right to have her views published by the union, and, in any case, the edited version was reasonable and “remained highly critical” of the policies of the union leadership, the court concluded.

Messina worked at the Long Island Jewish Med. Ctr., and had been a member of Local 1199 for more than 30 years. She had, for two decades, served the union as either an organizer or a delegate. As a delegate, she was charged with enforcing the collective bargaining agreement, and attending meetings of the delegates’ assembly.  In Mar. 1998, Messina submitted a letter to Local 1199’s newspaper. The letter was titled “An Open Letter to [Local 1199 President] Dennis Rivera” and signed by 70 members. The letter criticized union representatives as “being dishonest, ‘cozy with the bosses,’ unresponsive to grievances by union membership, ‘abusive and divisive,’ and for perpetuating a monarchy in union leadership.” The letter was published three months later, in an edited form that Messina alleged changed its tenor, and watered down its “content-based criticisms of union leadership.” The editing, she claimed, infringed the free speech rights of the letter’s authors.

Messina asserted that subsequent to the publication of her letter, Local 1199 vice president Phyllis Mushkin denied Messina the right to attend department meetings, and threatened to remove her as union delegate. In May 1998, Mushkin notified Messina that internal union charges had been leveled against her and that a union hearing and appeals board had recommended that she be suspended from her delegate position, pending resolution of the charges. Messina alleged that Mushkin’s letter was entirely fabricated, and that no charges in fact had been brought against her. Messina brought a complaint against Mushkin, which she maintained Rivera failed to process.

In Aug. 1998, Mushkin notified Messina that a hearing was scheduled on charges made against Messina. Messina advised Mushkin and Rivera that she believed the notice was inadequate under the union’s constitution. Messina later was notified that after three meetings of the board, none of which Messina attended, she was to be indefinitely dropped from the delegate rolls. Messina claimed that she had no notice of the second and third meetings.   Although initially there was some confusion about whether she still held her elected office and Messina continued to function as a delegate, at a June 1999 meeting, Mushkin and executive vice president Steve Kramer announced that Messina no longer was a delegate. Messina unsuccessfully sought redress through union procedures and then brought this action against the local, Kramer, Rivera, and Mushkin, alleging violations of LMRDA and the Labor Mgmt. Relations Act.

In her eight-count complaint, Messina alleged that her removal as an elected delegate was in reprisal for her “zealous representation of union members,” the assertion of her free speech rights, and her bringing charges against the vice president. She maintained that the retaliation constituted a “purposeful and deliberate attempt to suppress opposition and dissent,” in violation of LMRDA Section 101(a)(2). Other counts asserted that the publication of her letter in edited form was a censure, that her removal as delegate constituted unlawful “discipline,” without the requisite “due process,” and that her removal as delegate violated the Local 1199 and SEIU constitutions. Local 1199 and its officers argued that Messina could not contest her removal from union office under Section 101(a)(2) and moved for dismissal. [BNA 3/13/02]