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SOKOS v. HILTON HOTELS CORPORATION

September 22, 2003

SOTIRIOS SOKOS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HILTON HOTELS CORPORATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The complaint in this matter seeks monetary damages for the plaintiff's termination by the defendants and asserts claims of wrongful discharge; negligent hiring, supervision and retention; and tortious interference with contractual relations. This matter is currently before the Court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment and a bill of costs submitted by the defendants in response to the imposition of sanctions on plaintiff's counsel by the Court. The defendants' summary judgment motion principally asserts that the plaintiff's claims are governed by a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") and thus preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"), and that his case should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to pursue binding arbitration pursuant to this agreement. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the defendants' summary judgment motion and impose a $4,177.50 sanction against plaintiff's counsel for filing Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions.

I. Factual Background

The plaintiff was employed by defendant Hilton Hotels Corporation at the Hilton Washington & Towers ("Hilton" or the "Hotel") as a plumber from approximately 1987 through [ Page 2]

May 1999. Defendants' Statement of Material Facts as to Which There is No Genuine Issue ("Defs.' Facts") at ¶¶ 1-2; Plaintiff's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Plaintiff Sotirios Sokos' Amended Opposition of Defendant Hilton Hotels Corporation's Motion for Summary Judgment ("PL's Opp'n") at 3. While employed by the Hilton, the plaintiff was a member of the Local 99-99A ("Local 99") union and worked under a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA"). Defs.' Facts at ¶ 6; Pl.'s Opp'n at 3.

(A) The Collective Bargaining Agreement

The "jurisdiction" of Local 99 pursuant to the CBA between Hilton and the union encompassed the "operation, maintenance and repair of . . . [a]ll plumbing and piping including water, gas, heating, steam and sanitation systems . . . [and a]ny and all equipment under the supervision of the Chief Engineer." Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Mot."), Exhibit ("Ex.") 3 at 000005. The CBA also provided that

[i]f, in the opinion of the Chief Engineer and/or the Employer, any maintenance or repairs covered in this jurisdiction are beyond the scope of the employees to perform, the Employer, upon application to and consented by the Union, may call in outside help to perform the same in each single instance so applied for and granted
Id. In addition, and of significance to this case, the CBA sets forth the responsibilities of the Chief Engineer. Id. at 000012. Section 5.3 of the CBA states that:
[a]ll orders and instructions for . . . mechanical repairs and maintenance work shall be issued by the Chief Engineer, his/her designated assistant (and/or the General Manager or Building Superintendent or Director), and he/she shall have the responsibility for hiring and discharging all other employees covered by this Agreement, provided, however, that in exercising such responsibility, he/she shall conform to uniform personnel policies promulgated by the Employer and applicable to the hiring and discharge of all employees in the Employer's employ.
Id. Finally, the CBA contains a mandatory grievance process which is implemented through [ Page 3]

binding arbitration if the grievance cannot be resolved by the union or the Hotel. Id. at 000014. Specifically, section 6.1 of the CBA mandates that "[a]ny dispute arising out of the interpretation or application of this Agreement that is not disposed by the Union and the Employer within a reasonable time shall, at the written request of either party, be submitted to arbitration." Id.

(B) The Incident Involving the Plaintiff's Termination

In May 1999, defendant Jay Carley ("Carley"), who was defendant Hilton's Director of Property Operations, had a meeting with the Property Operations Department personnel, which was the department where the plaintiff worked, to discuss "a problem of missing materials." Defs.' Facts ¶¶ 11, 15. On May 27, 1999, shortly after the meeting, defendant Carley received an anonymous telephone call informing him that the plaintiff had been seen placing Hilton property in his vehicle. Id. ¶ 15. Defendant Carley and Earl Boehl, the Assistant Director of Property Operations, went to the plaintiff's vehicle and observed "DAP brand caulking" in his truck. Id. ¶ 16. Defendants Carley and Boehl then went back to where the caulking was kept in the hotel and "found a box of caulking that had been ripped open, and four tubes of caulking were missing." Id. ¶ 17. Additional supervisory personnel were advised of the investigation concerning the missing property and they also went to the plaintiff's vehicle and "saw additional material that appeared to be Hotel property in [p]laintiff's truck." Id. ¶¶ 18-19. The "[p]laintiff was [then told] to come to his truck and [when he arrived he] was asked to open the vehicle. . . . [When he did so, 1]awn sprinkler heads, caulking and PVC tubing were all found in [p]laintiff's truck. . . . Plaintiff's vehicle had four tubes of caulking in it, the same number missing from Hotel stock and the same brand and lot numbers. . . ." Id. ¶ 20 (citation to record omitted). [ Page 4]

The plaintiff explained that the caulking was his, id. ¶ 21, and that he "temporarily stored sprinkler heads and P.V.C. piping in [his truck in] order to perform his maintenance duties at the . . . Hotel in an efficient manner[,]" Plaintiff's Amended Material Facts in Dispute ("PL's Facts") ¶ 9. The defendants, however, take the position that "putting the sprinkler heads in his truck . . . violated Hotel policy." Defs.' Facts ¶ 25. "While still at his vehicle, . . . [the plaintiff was informed] that his employment was being suspended pending further investigation." Id. ¶ 26. Defendant Carley, who "had the authority to hire and fire Plaintiff[,]" and Robin Sterrett, the Director of Human Resources, subsequently decided to terminate the plaintiff's employment. Id. ¶ 27. On April 9, 2001, the plaintiff filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and the case was removed to this Court on May 7, 2001, by the defendants.

II. Standard of Review: Rule 56

Summary judgment is generally appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In assessing a summary judgment motion, the Supreme Court has explained that a trial court must look to the substantive law of the claims at issue to determine whether a fact is "material", Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a "genuine issue" of fact is "one whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and, therefore, affect the outcome of the action." Sanders v. Veneman, 211 F. Supp.2d 10, 14 (D.D.C. 2002) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248).

While it is generally understood that when considering a motion for summary judgment a [ Page 5]

court must "draw all justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the nonmoving party's evidence as true," Greene v. Amritsar Auto Servs. Co., 206 F. Supp.2d 4, 7 (D.D.C. 2002) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255), the non-moving party must establish more than "[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position", Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. To prevail on a summary judgment motion, the moving party must demonstrate that the non-moving party "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. The District of Columbia Circuit has stated that the non-moving party may not rely solely on mere conclusory allegations. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir. 1999); Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150, 154 (D.C. Cir. 1993). Thus, "[i]f the evidence is merely colorable . . . or is not significantly probative . . . summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted).

III. Legal Analysis

(A) Are the Plaintiff's State-Law Claims Preempted by the LMRA?

The defendants' primary position in their summary judgment motion is that resolution of the plaintiff's claims requires the interpretation of the CBA, which contains a mandatory requirement that grievances be resolved through arbitration.*fn1 Defs.' Mot., Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("Defs.' Mem.") at 6. And, because the plaintiff failed to file a grievance and then pursue arbitration if the grievance was not resolved to his satisfaction, the defendants assert that his claims must be [ Page 6]

dismissed. Id. at 10-11.

Section 301(a) of the LMRA provides:

Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce as defined in this Act, or between any such labor organizations, may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties, without respect to the amount in controversy or without regard to the citizenship of the parties.
29 U.S.C. § 185(a). The Supreme Court has held that § 301 "not only provides federal-court jurisdiction over controversies involving collective-bargaining agreements, but also `authorizes federal courts to fashion a body of federal law for the enforcement of these collective bargaining agreements.'" Lingle v. Norge Div. of Magic Chef, Inc., 486 U.S. 399, 403 (1988) (quoting Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills, 353 U.S. 448, 451 (1957)). Of particular significance to this case, the Supreme Court also stated in Lingle that
if the resolution of a state-law claim depends upon the meaning of a collective-bargaining agreement, the application of state law (which might lead to inconsistent results since there could be as many state-law principles as there are States) is pre-empted and federal labor-law principles — necessarily uniform throughout the Nation — ...

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