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Clark v. Teamsters Local Union 651

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

December 13, 2017

SARA CLARK, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TEAMSTERS LOCAL UNION 651, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DANNY C. REEVES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         The defendants have moved to dismiss the claims contained in the Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. [Record No. 8] For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant, in part, the defendants9; motion. The counts alleging wrongful termination, civil conspiracy, and destruction of evidence will be dismissed, with prejudice, while other counts shall remain pending.

         I.

         Plaintiff Sara Clark “(Clark”) is a former employee of Teamsters Local Union 651 (“Local 651”) located in Lexington, Kentucky. She was hired in 2008 to work as the Finance and Benefits Coordinator. [Record No. 1, ¶ 11] Clark paid union dues to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“IBT”) until March, 2017, when her employment was terminated at Local 651. [Id. at ¶ 13] Plaintiff Carol Estepp ‘(Estepp”) has been employed as the Dues Coordinator with Local 651 since 2012. [Id. at ¶ 15] Estepp is a member of the IBT and, as of the filing of the Complaint, has paid her dues through June 2017. [Id. at ¶ 16]

         The plaintiffs filed this action against Defendants Local 651, Michael Philbeck, and IBT. Both plaintiffs have asserted claims alleging violations of the Labor-Management Reporting Disclosure Act (“LMRDA”) (Count I), civil conspiracy (Count VII), hostile work environment (Count VIII), and for recovery of overtime compensation (Count IX), while Clark has made additional claims of wrongful termination (Count II), defamation (Count III), invasion of privacy (Count IV), unlawful access to computer (Count V), and destruction of evidence (Count VI). [See Record No. 1.] The plaintiffs allege that that they exercised rights under the LMRDA by reporting various improper and wrongful actions of Philbeck to the Executive board, the Local9;s secretary treasurer, IBT, and general members of Local 651. [Id. at ¶ 78] They contend that they were thereafter subjected to various forms of discipline from Philbeck, such as Clark9;s termination of employment from the union and threats made to Estepp, which violated the LMRDA. [Id. at ¶¶ 78-82]

         In Count II, Clark alleges wrongful termination of her employment. [Id. at ¶ 91] She also contends that Philbeck made false and defamatory statements about her, including statements made to the Executive Board, auditors from the IBT, and in a letter to an officer of the Local (Count III). [Id. at ¶ 95] Clark asserts that Philbeck and/or an employee of Local 65, while under the IBT9;s direct control and supervision, accessed her personal Dropbox account without her permission, changed her password, and destroyed evidence relevant to this litigation (Counts IV through Count VII). [Id. at ¶¶ 99-118]

         Both plaintiffs contend that Local 651, IBT, and Philbeck conspired to violate their rights to seclusion, privacy, and personal property by accessing Clark9;s Dropbox account, destroying evidence, creating and fostering a hostile work environment, and violating the LMRDA (Count VII). [Id. at ¶ 119-122]

         Next, both plaintiffs assert that, throughout their employment at Local 651, they were subjected to and present as Current Local 651 President Michael Philbeck (‘Philbeck”) used derogatory language towards and about women, including calling female company representatives “bitches”, and used profanity-laces diatribes when accusing plaintiffs of minor violations of his directives. [Id. at ¶ 21] They contend that, as a result of this conduct, they were subjected to a workplace permeated with continuous, on-going, and concerted sexual discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult creating a hostile working environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Count VIII). [Id. at ¶ 124] Finally, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants did not pay them for all hours worked over forty hours per week in violation of KRS § 337 and 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (Count IX). [Id. at ¶ 132-133]

         II.

         Under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must determine whether the complaint states a viable claim for relief. Simply put, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.9;” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and permit the Court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain more than an “unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions9; or a ‘formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action9;” is insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         III.

         A. The LMRDA Claims

         “Congress enacted Title I of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-415, to provide union members with a right to freedom of expression that would in turn help ensure that unions would be democratically governed. Harvey v. Hollenback, 113 F.3d 639');">113 F.3d 639, 642 (6th Cir. 1997) (citing Finnegan v. Leu, 456 U.S. 431, 435-36 (1982)). To this end, Section 609 of the LMRDA makes it unlawful for a labor organization to fine, suspend, expel, or otherwise discipline a member for exercising any right she is entitled to under the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 529. The term “discipline” “refers only to retaliatory actions that affect a union member9;s rights or status as a member of the union.” Finnegan, 456 U.S. at 438. In Finnegan, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff could not maintain an action for improper “discipline” under § 609 because “discharge from union employment does not impinge upon the incidents of union membership, and affects union members only to the extent that they happen to be union employees.” Id. at 431.

         The Sixth Circuit has consistently maintained the distinction between an individual9;s role as a member of a union and his or her role as an employee or appointed officer. In Cehaich v. Int9;l Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America, a union employee brought a claim under the LMRDA alleging that his to free expression under Title I had been violated by his termination from union employment. 10 F.2d 234');">710 F.2d 234, 234 (6th Cir. 1983). The court noted that member and officer roles were “distinct”, and “union action affecting one did not necessarily affect the other.” Id. at 238. And since there was no fine, suspension, or disciplinary action that had been taken against the plaintiff, he could not maintain an action under Section 609 because his “status as a member of the union remained unchanged after his dismissal from his position as a union officer.” Id. Conversely, in Thompson v. Office and Professional Employees Int9;l Union, AFL-CIO, the court upheld a judgment in favor of a dismissed union business representative. 1492');">74 F.3d 1492 (6th Cir. 1996). Unlike the facts in Cehaich, the plaintiff in Thompson was expelled from union membership immediately after his termination from his position in the union, thus equating to discipline “in a manner which affected his right to fully enjoy the rights and privileges of union membership.” Id. at 1503.

         In addition to Section 609, Section 102 of the LMRDA provides a right of action to members “whose rights . . . have been infringed . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 412. The Supreme Court has stated that a claim might arise from the dismissal of a union employee or official if it were “part of a purposeful and deliberate attempt to … suppress dissent within the union.”[1" name="FN1" id= "FN1">1]Finnegan, 456 U.S. at 441. Further, the Supreme Court noted in Finnegan that, when dealing with a Section 102 claim, “we leave open the question whether a different result might obtain in a case involving nonpolicymaking and nonconfidential employees.” Id. at 441, fn. 11.

         The plaintiffs claim that Clark9;s termination of employment and other discipline, and the Local9;s threat to Estepp “to stay out of politics and the IBT9;s indifference to the fears she raised in her letter, ” violates Sections 102 and 609 of the LMRDA. [Record No. 1, ¶¶ 77-82] Plaintiffs have stated a plausible claim for violations of the LMRDA. Clark has plausibly alleged that her termination is a form of discipline in violation of Section 609 or infringed on her rights in violation of Section 102. Additionally, Estepp has plausibly alleged that the actions of Philbeck have infringed on her rights in violation of Section 102. While the Sixth Circuit has noted that “‘plaintiffs face an uphill battle” under Section 102, Harvey, 113 F.3d at 644 (quoting Stroud v. Senese, 1206');">832 F.Supp. 1206, 1213 (N.D. Ill. 1993)), the burden has been met to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12.

         B. ...


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