DC Circuit Applies Longer Period to File Suit Under Section 301 of the LMRA

When an employer and a union enter into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), they invariably provide within the agreement itself for arbitration of disputes arising under the CBA. Thus, most CBAs include a process by which grievances are processed and, if not resolved, ultimately moved to arbitration. However, a federal statute also provides a mechanism whereby an employee can bring a federal lawsuit for violation of a CBA.

Section 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) provides a federal right of action, and allows an employee to sue his or her employer for breach of contract even if the employer's alleged conduct is also an unfair labor practice prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 301 completely preempts an employee's state law breach of contract claim based on a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

In a recent case, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit analyzed an employee's claim that his employer had violated the terms of the CBA in place between the employer and a labor union. The employee worked as a security guard for the employer, which contracted with the U.S. Marshals Service to provide security guards for various premises in Washington, D.C.

The employee was employed as a court security officer at the U.S. Attorney's Office, until he was removed for his alleged failure to respond to an emergency while on duty. As a result of the request, the employer transferred him to another facility. The removal and transfer occurred at the request of the government official in charge of security at the building, and the CBA in place contained a provision that expressly made the grievance procedures inapplicable "to any situation where the employer is acting under the directives of the U.S. Marshals Service."

Nonetheless, the union filed a grievance, claiming the transfer was inconsistent with the CBA. The employer denied the grievance, stating that the transfer was not reviewable because it was enacted at the written request of the government. Twenty-one months later, the employee brought a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, alleging a claim for common law breach of contract, which the employer then removed to federal court on the basis that Section 301 completely preempted the state law claim.

The issue before the court was whether the state law claim was timely. Section 301 does not specify a statute of limitations. Thus, the court had to decide whether to apply the most analogous District of Columbia statute of limitations (three years) or the six-month statute of limitations contained in Section 10(b) of the NLRA. Generally, a state law limitations period applies unless its application would frustrate or interfere with the implementation of national policies or would be at odds with the purpose or operation of federal substantive law.

Many claims brought under Section 301 are so-called "hybrid" claims involving two intertwined claims: one against the employer for breaching the contract and another against the union for breaching its duty of fair representation toward the employee. In a typical hybrid claim under Section 301, the six-month statute of limitation contained in Section 10(b) will apply because such a claim amounts to a direct challenge to the private settlement of disputes under the CBA, thereby frustrating the federal interest in the formation of labor agreements and the private settlement of disputes thereunder.

However, the case before the Court was not a "hybrid" claim but a straightforward claim against the employer for breach of contract. Because the claim was not subject to the grievance procedure in the contract, and thus did not implicate the union's duty of fair representation toward the employee, the court found no rationale to overcome the presumption that the state statute of limitations would apply. The court concluded that the D.C. three-year statute of limitations applied, which resulted in the revival of the employee's claim against his employer.

This case is a reminder that although such a situation is relatively rare, an employee may bring a direct suit against his employer for violation of a CBA. If the claim is subject to resolution through the grievance process in the contract, the employee must first exhaust the grievance and arbitration procedures under the contract, and any subsequent suit will be subject to the federal six-month statute of limitations contained in Section 10(b) of the NLRA. However, if the underlying claim is not subject to arbitration under the terms of the agreement, and thus does not allege or imply any breach of the union's duty of fair representation, it may be subject to the (usually much longer) state statute of limitations period. This is one more thing for unionized employers to consider when denying a grievance on the grounds that it is not arbitrable under the terms of the labor contract.