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Baird v. Holway

March 7, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


Plaintiff Rhonda N. Baird brings this action against various officers of Local R3-77 ("Local") and the National Association of Government Employees ("NAGE"). According to plaintiff, both the Local and NAGE (the national union to which the Local was affiliated during the relevant time period) have retaliated against her for exercising her protected right to speak out against union policies. Thus, she filed suit pursuant to the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act ("LMRDA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 401, 501, and also added various state law tort claims seeking monetary and injunctive relief. NAGE and its President, David Holway, have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint as it pertains to them.*fn1 That motion is now fully briefed and ripe for resolution. Upon careful consideration, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant the motion.


It bears noting at the outset that the pro se complaint in this case is "not a model of clarity," as defendants put it. Defs.' Mot at 1. That would be understandable for a typical pro se litigant, but it is a bit odd here because plaintiff is actually a practicing attorney at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC"). Be that as it may, the Amended Complaint concerns many of the same events and issues that were the subject of an extensive and thoughtful opinion by Judge Huvelle in Johnson v. Holway, 439 F. Supp. 2d 180 (D.D.C. 2006). Following a bench trial in that case, Judge Huvelle made thorough findings of fact and law that the Court will draw upon here where appropriate.

Plaintiff has been employed as an attorney with PBGC since 1997. Am. Compl. ¶ 9. She is currently assigned to the Office of Chief Counsel and is a member of the Local. Id. Local R3-77 "is entrusted with the responsibility to represent the 500 bargaining unit employees of PBGC in Washington D.C. with respect to certain of their terms and conditions of employment." Id. ¶ 2. In 1999, the Local decided to associate itself with a national union. It ultimately settled upon NAGE, "a 45,000-member labor union that represented municipal, state and federal employees." Johnson, 439 F. Supp. 2d. at 185. NAGE is itself a local of the Service Employees International Union ("SEIU"). Am. Compl. ¶ 4. From 1999 until May 2007, there is no dispute that NAGE served as the Local's "exclusive representative." Id.

During the course of its association with NAGE, the Local became embroiled in several highly contentious Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") disputes with PBGC. Many of those disputes proceeded to arbitration between the Local and PBGC. NAGE maintains an arbitration policy governing actions initiated by its local unions. Pursuant to that policy, locals must submit "the case to the NAGE Legal Staff for review." Defs.' Mot. Ex. A ¶ 2.*fn2 If NAGE's legal staff determines that the case is meritorious, the Local "receive[s] legal and financial support [from NAGE], the national paying half of the union's bill." Johnson, 439 F. Supp. 2d at 193. If, however, a case is determined to "lack merit," the local receives no such support from NAGE. Defs.' Mot. Ex. A ¶ 6. The policy also outlines a procedure for appeal and review of the legal staff's determination on the merits of a case.

The operative events in this case began to unfold in April 2002. During that month, plaintiff testified as a witness in a "contentious arbitration brought by the Local challenging the structure and operation of PBGC's Equal Employment Opportunity Program." Am. Compl. ¶ 10. Plaintiff was initially hesitant to participate in the proceeding because she feared retaliation by PBGC but she ultimately testified because "the Local needed bargaining unit employees to step up." Id. Following her testimony on behalf of the Local, plaintiff "felt a decided chill from PBGC labor management officials -- Deputy General Counsel Philip Hertz in particular." Id. ¶ 11. Then, in November 2002, plaintiff was "accosted in her office by her acting supervisor, John Paliga." Id. ¶ 12. Paliga physically intimidated plaintiff by backing her into a corner, making her "extremely fearful for her safety." Id. She promptly reported the incident to PBGC management but was met only with "sneers and smirks"; she insists that management "intentionally failed to conduct an objective investigation." Id.

Plaintiff informed "PBGC and the Local of the emotional and psychological struggles she faced because of the incident and subsequent events especially the difficulties she faced working in an environment in which she no longer felt either safe or secure." Id. ¶ 14. She "subsequently filed a[n] [EEO] grievance in a desperate attempt to alleviate the stress she felt." Id. The Local consequently invoked arbitration "to redress the violations committed by supervisor John Paliga and various management officials." Id. ¶ 15. Pursuant to NAGE's arbitration policy, the Local submitted the case to NAGE for review, but "the national subsequently determined that the arbitration lacked merit and therefore denied funding." Johnson, 439 F. Supp. 2d at 207; Am. Compl. ¶ 16. Plaintiff "doggedly" pursued NAGE's internal appeals process to no avail. Id.

Frustrated by NAGE's rejection, plaintiff nevertheless proceeded with her arbitration "at her own costs."*fn3 Id. Around the same time that NAGE issued its rejection of plaintiff's arbitration claim in early 2003, tensions between the Local and NAGE were reaching a boiling point. As detailed in Johnson, certain Local officials were becoming increasingly agitated by NAGE's treatment of on-going arbitrations. See 439 F. Supp. 2d at 197-203. The Local's then-President, Valda Johnson, filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority ("FLRA") against NAGE, see id. at 199, triggering a series of meetings between NAGE and Local officials. During those meetings, plaintiff was "outspoken about her opinion that NAGE was not providing the Local with the assistance it needed, especially on EEO cases, and that NAGE was also responsible for the breakdown in the relationship between its organization and certain Local officials." Am. Compl. ¶ 17. According to plaintiff, "NAGE President Holway was especially hostile to [plaintiff] after the meeting." Id.

NAGE eventually launched an investigation into the Local's finances after President Johnson had "refused to provide documents to the National as part of an investigation in connection with allegations that repeated requests for an account of the Local's treasury had been ignored." Johnson, 439 F. Supp. 2d at 209. As a result of that investigation and numerous complaints that NAGE received concerning the Local's leadership, "Holway imposed an emergency trusteeship on Local R3-77, appointing Stephanie Zaiser as trustee." Id. at 213. Pursuant to NAGE's constitution, the national held a hearing with Local members regarding the imposition of the emergency trusteeship. Id. at 215. During that hearing, plaintiff again spoke out against NAGE's conduct. Id. The ousted Local leadership then promptly "initiated a legal action . . . challenging the imposition of the trusteeship and resulting actions of NAGE." Am. Compl. ¶ 20. The Johnson opinion is the result of that action.

According to plaintiff, she "filed several declarations in [Johnson] expressing her belief that NAGE unlawfully retaliated and discriminated against certain employees including her by failing and refusing to advance arbitration matters involving EEO claims." Id. Significantly, she also "filed several unfair labor practice charges ("ULP") with the Federal Labor Relations Authority . . . to try to obtain some relief from NAGE's refusal to provide any support for her arbitration matter and other harmful actions taken by NAGE and the Local." Id. Plaintiff was especially dismayed that "the NAGE Trustee . . . decided to withdraw the Local from assisting with the Baird Arbitration." Id.

Eventually, plaintiff was "able to obtain some assistance with representation at the Local level." Id. ¶ 21. The only in-house steward available to assist her, however, was Dwayne Jeffers, who had "no relevant experience representing arbitration matters and no legal education," according to plaintiff. Id. The relationship between plaintiff and Jeffers rapidly deteriorated and became increasingly acrimonious. As plaintiff would have it, Jeffers "did not care about any resulting 'collateral damage' from his conduct, . . . [such as] adverse impact on other employees." Id. ¶ 23. Plaintiff, on the other hand, was "strongly opposed" to that practice. Id.

Tensions ran high between plaintiff and Jeffers. Beginning in early 2005, plaintiff asserts that "Jeffers began calling [her] names such as a 'pathological liar' and 'psychotic'" in email correspondence to PBGC management. Id. ¶ 25. Additionally, Jeffers accused plaintiff of making "terrorist style" threats and referred to her as a "pornographer's friend." Id. Plaintiff responded by filing complaints concerning Jeffers's conduct with the Local, NAGE, and PBGC. She also requested that Jeffers be removed from any involvement in her arbitration proceedings. Id. At that point, however, Jeffers had become an officer of the Local and plaintiff's protests evidently fell on deaf ears. Indeed, plaintiff contends that "President Holway, NAGE, and the Local leadership all failed to take any action in response to complaints about Mr. Jeffers [sic] completely unprofessional conduct." Id.

Meanwhile, plaintiff's arbitration proceeded on a bifurcated basis. The first phase was the liability inquiry. During that portion of the arbitration, plaintiff asserts that PBGC attempted to portray her psychiatric condition in a disingenuous light. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff had evidently sought counseling in the aftermath of the discriminatory behavior directed towards her. That counseling, she contends, "resulted in a misdiagnosis." Id. She asserts that "PBGC [was] aware that the early medical treatment . . . resulted in a misdiagnosis," but it nevertheless attempted to utilize that error to its advantage in the liability proceedings. Id. Despite PBGC's best efforts, however, the arbitrator issued a decision finding PBGC liable for unlawful retaliation in April 2005. Id. ¶ 26. Specifically, the "arbitrator determined that [plaintiff] was retaliated against primarily because of her testimony on behalf of the Local and NAGE." Id.

With the damages phase of the arbitration underway, plaintiff and Jeffers attended a conference with the arbitrator on November 21, 2005. Id. ¶ 27. During that meeting, Jeffers disclosed that he had "provided large amounts of the record in the arbitration to Mr. Perry . . . in response to a subpoena." Id. Those disclosed documents included plaintiff's medical records used during the liability phase of the arbitration. This became a large source of anxiety for plaintiff because she believed that those records were subject to a protective order, not to mention inaccurate and potentially damaging to her career. Plaintiff immediately notified union officials of this development by filing complaints with President Holway, NAGE, the Local, and PBGC. Id. ¶ 28. No remedial action was taken in response. "During the next several months, [plaintiff] beseeched Holway, NAGE and the Local to take action to retrieve and redress the dissemination of the highly private information contained in medical and personnel records." Id. Those efforts were also unsuccessful.

Exasperated, plaintiff filed the instant action. She believes that NAGE and the Local refused to assist her in retrieving her medical records in retaliation for her outspoken criticism of both entities. Plaintiff subsequently declared her candidacy for President of the Local "to try to return . . . some semblance of a representative organization" to the union. Id. ¶ 29. On April 2, 2007, she won the election and assumed presidency of the Local. Shortly thereafter, on May 14, 2007, plaintiff "received a letter from NAGE President Holway informing her . . . that NAGE had decided to rescind its status as the exclusive representative of the Local." Id. ¶ 32. NAGE cited the "expense of 'ongoing litigation'" as the motivating factor behind its decision to sever ties with the Local. Id. NAGE then filed a petition with the FLRA to effectuate the disassociation. According to plaintiff, if NAGE successfully withdraws its representation, the collective bargaining ...

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