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International Brotherhood of Teamsters v. National Mediation Board

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 21, 2016

INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS, Plaintiff
v.
NATIONAL MEDIATION BOARD, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          COLLEEN KOLLAR-KOTELLY United States District Judge

         This case concerns an election-a union representation election among employees of Intervenor Allegiant Air, LLC. Before the Court are Plaintiff International Brotherhood of Teamsters' [16] Motion for Summary Judgment; Defendant National Mediation Board's [17] Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment; and Intervenor Allegiant Air, LLC's [19] Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff International Brotherhood of Teamsters ("the Teamsters") challenges the decision of Defendant National Mediation Board ("the Board") not to hold a runoff election where the initial ballot resulted in a tie between the incumbent union and the option to choose "no representation." Plaintiff argues that the Board is mandated by the language of the Railway Labor Act to hold a run-off election in these circumstances; Defendant and Intervenor both disagree. The Court concludes that the relevant statutory provision of the Railway Labor Act is ambiguous, that the Board's interpretation of that provision is reasonable, and that, therefore, the Board's decision not to conduct a run-off election survives the limited scope of this Court's review under the Railway Labor Act. As explained further below, upon consideration of the pleadings, [1] the relevant legal authorities, and the record for purposes of this motion, the Court GRANTS Defendant National Mediation Board's [17] Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and Intervenor Allegiant Air, LLC's [19] Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment and DENIES Plaintiff's [16] Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory Framework

         "Labor relations in the railroad and airline industries are governed by the Railway Labor Act." Air Transp. Ass'n of Am., Inc. v. Nat'l Mediation Bd., 663 F.3d 476, 478 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (citing 45 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq.). "Passed in 1926 and amended several times since, the Act seeks to avoid strikes by encouraging bargaining, arbitration, and mediation." Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ("D.C. Circuit") has recognized that "[t]he Railway Labor Act has little to say about how employees are to choose their representatives." Id. However, the Act does specify that "[t]he majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class." 45 U.S.C. § 152, Fourth. Moreover, the Act "established the National Mediation Board, assigning it the task of recognizing and certifying the chosen representative." Air Transp. Ass'n, 663 F.3d at 478 (citing 45 U.S.C. §§ 152, Ninth, 154). The statute establishes the responsibilities of the National Mediation Board as follows:

If any dispute shall arise among a carrier's employees as to who are the representatives of such employees designated and authorized in accordance with the requirements of this chapter, it shall be the duty of the Mediation Board, upon request of either party to the dispute, to investigate such dispute and to certify to both parties, in writing, within thirty days after the receipt of the invocation of its services, the name or names of the individuals or organizations that have been designated and authorized to represent the employees involved in the dispute, and certify the same to the carrier.

45 U.S.C. § 152, Ninth (emphasis added). After such certification, the employer carrier is required to "treat with"-that is, negotiate with-the certified representative. Id.

         The statute further establishes several parameters for the Board's role in investigating and certifying an employee representative. First, the National Mediation Board is "authorized to take a secret ballot of the employees involved, or to utilize any other appropriate method of ascertaining the names of their duly designated and authorized representatives in such manner as shall insure the choice of representatives by the employees without interference, influence, or coercion exercised by the carrier." Id. Second, if the Board conducts an election, the Board is authorized to determine "who may participate in the election and establish the rules to govern the election." Id.

         Finally, in a provision added by Congress in 2012, which underlies the dispute in this case, the statutes provides the following directions regarding runoff elections:

In any such election for which there are 3 or more options (including the option of not being represented by any labor organization) on the ballot and no such option receives a majority of the valid votes cast, the Mediation Board shall arrange for a second election between the options receiving the largest and the second largest number of votes.

45 U.S.C. § 152, Ninth; see FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, P.L. 112-95, 126 Stat. 11, 146 (Feb. 14, 2012). Prior to this amendment, the Railway Labor Act did not include a specific provision governing run-off elections. See Id. However, pursuant to Board regulations promulgated in 1947, it has long been the Board's practice to conduct run-off elections in certain circumstances. See 12 Fed. Reg. 3, 083 (May 10, 1947) (promulgating provision); 13 Fed. Reg. 8, 740 (Dec. 30, 1948) (redesignating provisions).

         After the 2012 revisions to the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board promulgated revised its regulations regarding election procedures. The regulations promulgated described when run-off elections must be held:

In an election among any craft or class where three or more options (including the option for no representation) receive valid votes, if no option receives a majority of the legal votes cast, or in the event of a tie vote, the Board shall authorize a run-off election.

         Representation Procedures and Rulemaking Authority, 77 Fed. Reg. 75, 543, 75, 449 (Dec. 21, 2012) (codified at 29 C.F.R. § 1206.1).[2] The Board also promulgated changes to the provision governing the form of the ballots to be used in a run-off election, as follows:

In the event a run-off election is authorized by the Board, the names of the two options which received the highest number of votes cast in the first election shall be placed on the run-off ballot, and no blank line on which voters may write in the name of any organization or individual will be provided on the run-off ballot.

Id. (codified at 29 C.F.R § 1206.1(b)).[3]

         Some context to the 2012 amendments helps to illuminate the issues before the Court. Until 2010, the Board determined the outcome of representation election on the basis of all eligible votes, rather than on the basis of votes cast. See Air Transp. Ass'n of Am., 663 F.3d at 477. As explained by the D.C. Circuit, "[f]or seventy-five years, the National Mediation Board counted non-voters as voting against union representation, thereby requiring a majority of eligible voters to affirmatively vote for representation before a union could be certified." Id. Under that scheme, the only way to intentionally "vote" against representation was to refrain from voting. See Id. at 478 ("For example, a ballot might present the option of voting for union A, union B, or union C, and those preferring no union representation would simply abstain. Whichever candidate received a majority of the votes would become the elected representative unless, of course, a majority of voters abstained.").

         In 2010, the Board promulgated a rule under which "election [would] be decided by a majority of votes cast, and those not voting will be understood as acquiescing to the outcome of the election."[4] Id. (emphasis added). Under the revised election procedures, "ballots [would] include a ‘no union' option so that employees can affirmatively vote against union representation." Id. That is, all first-round election ballots would include the following options: (1) one or more named representatives, (2) a "no representation" option, and (3) the opportunity to write-in a representative of the voter's choice. Id. at 485. When a union seeks to replace an incumbent union representative, the ballot will include both the incumbent representative and the proposed alterative representative. See Id. If any employees seek to decertify the incumbent union, seeking to remain unrepresented, "employees designate a straw man to run against the union representative with the understanding that, if elected, the straw man would disclaim any representative status." Id. at 484. A ballot in a decertification election would include the "straw man, " in addition to the incumbent representative, the "no representation" option, and the opportunity to write-in other candidates. Id. at 485.

         The Board has a longstanding process of organizing run-off elections when no representative garners a majority on the initial ballot.[5] See Id. at 485-65; Representation Procedures and Rulemaking Authority, 77 Fed. Reg. 28, 536, 28, 536 (proposed May 15, 2012) (to be codified at 29 C.F.R. § 1206.1). Until the 2012 amendments to the Railway Labor Act-both before and after the 2010 regulatory changes-the Board had the practice of aggregating votes for any union representative in determining whether to hold a runoff election and which options would be listed on the runoff ballot. See 77 Fed. Reg. at 28, 536. The Board explained the aggregation process in place as of 2012 as follows:

Prior to the enactment of the FAA Reauthorization, under its previous practice in representation elections, the Board aggregated all votes cast for representation, including write-in votes. Where a majority of employees have cast valid ballots for representation but no individual or organization received a majority of the ballots cast, the issue to be determined was which of the individuals or organizations would be the representative. Thus, the run-off election, once authorized, would be between the two individuals or organizations that received the highest number of votes.

77 Fed. Reg. at 28, 536 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 1206.1). In other words, the Board would add up all of the votes for any union representative on the first ballot. Air Transp. Ass'n, 663 F.3d at 485. If that total constituted a majority, but no single representative received a majority, the Board would hold a run-off election. Id. The two options in that run-off election would be the top two vote recipients among the union representatives. Id.

         As noted above, in 2012, Congress amended the Railway Labor Act to add an explicit provision regarding run-off elections, whereas no such statutory provision existed previously. As amended, the statute includes the following language:

In any such election for which there are 3 or more options (including the option of not being represented by any labor organization) on the ballot and no such option receives a majority of the valid votes cast, the Mediation Board shall arrange for a second election between the options receiving the largest and the second largest number of votes.

45 U.S.C. § 152. As the Board explained in a rulemaking following those amendments, "[t]he amendments to the RLA now require that the Board no longer aggregate votes for representation and that any run-off election will be between the two ballot options that receive the most votes." 77 Fed. Reg. at 28, 536 (emphasis added). The Board emphasized, as does the statutory language, that the "two ballot options" "can include the ‘no' option."[6] Id.

         The agency proposed certain regulatory changes in light of the statutory amendment. See id. at 28, 536, 28, 537; Representation Procedures and Rulemaking Authority; Correction, 77 Fed. Reg. 33, 701, 33, 701 (rule proposed June 7, 2012) ("The proposed rule changes the National Mediation Board's … existing rules for run-off elections to incorporate language added to the Railway Labor Act … by the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012."). Accordingly, the agency promulgated the following regulation that is at the core of this case:

In an election among any craft or class where three or more options (including the option for no representation) receive valid votes, if no option receives a majority of the legal votes cast, or in the event of a tie ...

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