Final victory in Teamsters 901, Puerto Rico retaliation lawsuit

AUD Director Barbara Harvey had another legal victory in her case against Teamsters Local 901, Puerto Rico, winning attorney’s fees from the local in a decision filed on March 31, 2014. Harvey covered the original victory in UDR #200 (July/August 2013). In the court’s first decision, it found that three elected stewards were unlawfully suspended from membership for six years (two terms of Local office), removed as stewards, and fined $10,000 each, in retaliation for having filed a meritorious post-election complaint with the DOL. The suspensions from membership removed the stewards as political threats for three consecutive terms of office,1 and the fines effectively removed them as adversaries permanently, since none of them was able to pay the steep fine.

The stewards were ostensibly removed on an accusation that they had participated in an unlawful strike by fellow Local 901 members at a different shop, along with other supportive members and stewards from other shops. The Local charged that the strike was unauthorized. In fact, though, the three stewards attended the picket line in response to a request for their presence by the strikers, after a strike vote had been taken and strike authorization unanimously approved, the Local had made a written request to the IBT for strike authorization, and the IBT had granted the request, in writing. What the strikers and their supporters did not know, because the Local had not informed them, was that the Local had secretly informed the employer, Coca-Cola Bottling, that the strike was unauthorized. Eighty-six workers were either discharged or suspended. None of them, including the actual strike organizers, were subjected to union discipline of any kind. The strikers were later reinstated by the NLRB, which determined the strike to be a protected ULP strike, called in part to protest and demand rescission of the Employer’s discharge of the five stewards who, with the BA, comprised the Union’s bargaining committee.

In Hall v. Cole, 412 U.S. 1 (1973), the Supreme Court recognized the “common benefit” theory of entitlement to attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs on LMRDA Title I claims, where the victory bestows a benefit on the membership, generally, in addition to the plaintiffs. In such cases, reasoned the Court, the victory “render[s] a substantial service to [the] union as an institution and to all its members.” In her motion for attorney fees, Harvey argued that the case at hand met the standard set by Hall v. Cole. “By striking down the retaliatory discipline as violative of free speech and equal voting rights under [the LMRDA], this lawsuit substantially dispelled the chill of the actions taken against plaintiffs and their fellow candidates and supporters by the plaintiffs’ Union.”

The court agreed that attorney fees should be awarded, noting that the victory in this case was the first LMRDA union member free speech victory in the Puerto Rico District Court. The remaining issue was the reasonableness of the requested hourly rate, which is typically the rate “prevailing in the community for similar work” (Maceira v. Pagán 1983). The court noted, however, that a higher rate may be acceptable in a case requiring experience and expertise not found among local attorneys. With this, the Court acknowledged that Harvey is among the “few and difficult to find” attorneys with extensive experience in issues concerning union democracy and LMRDA Title 1. Noting her past cases, teaching experience, and work with several organizations, AUD among them, the Court established Harvey as an expert in the field, commanding a higher hourly rate. The ruling is good news for rank and file union members who have legitimate LMRDA Title 1 complaints, but may find legal fees prohibitive.

1. One of the requirements for Teamster office is two continuous and uninterrupted years of membership in good standing.

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