Union Contract Doesn’t Bar Worker’s Wage Lawsuit

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By Kevin McGowan

A union-represented cemetery employee didn’t have to exhaust the grievance procedures in the union contract to sue his former employer for alleged Fair Labor Standards Act violations, a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled ( Vega v. New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC , 2017 BL 160975, 7th Cir., No. 16-3119, 5/15/17 ).

The decision reinforces that a worker’s statutory rights are distinct from his rights under a union contract. A union-represented employee doesn’t have to pursue his statutory claims under the contract’s grievance and arbitration process before suing unless the labor pact explicitly requires that he do so.

A federal district court dismissed Luis Vega’s statutory wage-and-hour lawsuit against New Forest Home Cemetery LLC, his former employer, because Vega never invoked the grievance process under the cemetery’s collective bargaining agreement with a Service Employees International Union local.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit revived Vega’s lawsuit May 15, emphasizing that his statutory rights to proper pay are distinct from his contractual rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a collective bargaining agreement may waive a union-represented worker’s right to sue on a statutory claim if it explicitly states the worker must resolve such claims through a grievance process and arbitration process.

Nothing Indicates Waiver

Nothing in Vega’s union contract “clearly and unmistakably” required him to pursue his FLSA claim only through the grievance procedure, Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner wrote in an opinion joined by Judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Michael S. Kanne.

Vega alleged New Forest failed to pay him for his final two weeks at work, thereby violating his minimum wage rights under the FLSA. Vega said he tried to invoke the labor agreement’s grievance process, but gave up after union representatives failed to return his phone calls. The union agents disputed that Vega ever tried to contact them.

Regardless of that dispute, Vega didn’t have to exhaust the contractual grievance procedure before suing under the federal wage statute, the Seventh Circuit said.

New Forest argued Vega was compelled to use the grievance procedure to resolve his FLSA claim. Under the Supreme Court precedent, a union-represented worker could be forced to take his statutory claim through the grievance procedure rather than sue the employer.

But that’s only true if the union and employer explicitly have provided the grievance procedure is the exclusive route for resolving both contractual and statutory claims.

The labor agreement’s language “must be clear and unmistakable for it to be enforced against an employee” who wants to “bypass” the grievance procedure and take his statutory claim directly to court, the Seventh Circuit said.

The agreement between the cemetery and Vega’s union lacks such clear language that would waive Vega’s right to go to court with his FLSA claim. The court therefore reinstated Vega’s lawsuit under the federal wage law.

The attorneys who represented Vega and the cemetery both declined to comment on the decision.

The Becerra Law Group represented Vega. Hennessey & Roach represented New Forest Home Cemetery.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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