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National Postal Mail Handlers Union v. United States Postal Service

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

September 12, 2014

NATIONAL POSTAL MAIL HANDLERS UNION, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendant

For NATIONAL POSTAL MAIL HANDLERS UNION, A DIVISION OF THE LABORERS' INTERNATIONAL UNION OF NORTH AMERICA, AFL-CIO, LOCAL 308, NATIONAL POSTAL MAIL HANDLERS UNION, Plaintiffs: Cassie Ehrenberg, William T. Josem, LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, CLEARY, JOSEM & GRIGIANI LLP, Philadelphia, PA; Bruce Richard Lerner, BREDHOFF & KAISER, P.L.L.C., Washington, DC.

For UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE, Defendant: Andrea McBarnette, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.

OPINION

CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER, United States District Judge.

Page 237

Local 308 of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union missed a deadline to appeal a grievance against the United States Postal Service. The union argued before an arbitrator tat the Postal Service waived its objection to the late filing by failing to raise the issue during the grievance process. The arbitrator excused the Postal Service's failure, finding that the union's own actions resulted in the Postal Service not being aware of the appeal's tardiness, and concluded the grievance was not arbitrable. The union seeks to vacate the arbitrator's decision, and the Postal Service has moved for summary judgment. Because the Court finds that the arbitrator's decision met the highly deferential standard that applies to this Court's review of Postal Service labor arbitration awards, the Court will grant summary judgment to the Postal Service.

I. Background[1]

The National Postal Mail Handlers Union (" NPMHU" ) represents approximately 45,000 mail handlers employed by the United States Postal Service (" USPS" ) nationwide. Compl. ¶ 4. NPMHU Local 308 represents approximately 2,200 USPS mail handlers in Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Southern New Jersey. Id. ¶ 5.[2]

NPMHU and USPS are parties to a national collective bargaining agreement (" CBA" ), Compl. Ex. A, and its corresponding Contract Interpretation Manual, id. Ex. B. The CBA provides a detailed four-step procedure for processing and deciding grievances lodged by the union. Id. Ex. A. The CBA requires the union to appeal or otherwise escalate a grievance to the next step within certain time limits. If it does not do so, the grievance is considered waived. If USPS does not raise the union's untimeliness, however, it waives that defense as a basis for dismissing the grievance. In the event the parties are unable to resolve the grievance at one of the early stages of the process, the CBA provides for arbitration before a neutral arbitrator.

On March 13, 2008, Local 308 filed a grievance asserting that USPS had breached the CBA by hiring casual employees in Philadelphia. Pl.'s Memo. in Opp. to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. 2; Compl. Ex. C at 7. After the parties entered into a written agreement to extend the Step 1 time limits, USPS never rendered a Step 1 decision. Local 308 moved the grievance to Step 2 on March 25, 2008. The union asserts that after a Step 2 meeting on June 2, 2008, the parties informally agreed to meet again and to extend the time limit for moving the grievance to Step 3. But the parties never memorialized any such agreement in writing. Had they adhered

Page 238

to the CBA's time limits, USPS would have had to issue a Step 2 decision by June 12, 2008. The union would have had until June 27, 2008 to appeal to Step 3, even without a decision letter from USPS, pursuant to Article 15.3.C of the CBA. Having not heard back from USPS about another meeting or with a formal response, Local 308 escalated the grievance to Step 3 on September 12, 2008--more than two months late. On September 15, a USPS management representative issued a Step 2 decision denying the grievance because the union's appeal to Step 3 was untimely. Several months later, on January 20, 2009, a different USPS representative issued a Step 3 decision which denied the merits of the grievance but did not mention the union's failure to move the grievance to Step 3 in a timely manner.

The grievance then proceeded to arbitration. USPS argued before the arbitrator that the matter was not arbitrable because the union missed the Step 3 appeal deadline, there was no mutual extension of the deadline, and it never waived the union's untimeliness as a defense. The union responded that USPS had waived any untimeliness argument because the second USPS management representative did not mention it in his Step 3 decision letter. After a hearing, the arbitrator issued an eleven-page decision dismissing the grievance based on the union's untimely appeal to Step 3. The arbitrator found that there was no mutual agreement on an extension and, therefore, the union was bound by the timeframe outlined in the CBA. Even without a Step 2 decision letter, the arbitrator found that the onus was on the union to move the grievance to the next step in a timely manner. The arbitrator further determined that NPMHU's untimely appeal resulted in the creation of two different and incomplete case files for the same grievance. As a result, the arbitrator found that the USPS representative who drafted the Step 3 decision letter was not aware that the union's Step 2 appeal had been untimely. These unique circumstances led the arbitrator to excuse USPS's failure to raise a timeliness defense in its Step 3 response. Accordingly, the arbitrator concluded that the " Union's actions were unreasonable and inconsistent with the requirements of the National Agreement when it waited three months to appeal the case to Step 3." Compl. Ex. C. at 10.

The union now seeks to vacate the arbitrator's decision and proceed to the merits of the grievance. It has sued under 39 U.S.C. § 1208(b), which permits suits in federal district courts for breaches of contracts between USPS and its employees' unions. E.g., Am. Postal Workers' Union v. United States Postal Serv.,646 F.Supp.2d 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2009) (noting that section 1208(b) is substantially similar to section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, which ...


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