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Murray v. Amalgamated Transit Union

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 2, 2016

JANICE MURRAY, et al, Plaintiffs,


          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

         "Courts do not usually raise claims or arguments on their own. But federal courts have an independent obligation to ensure that they do not exceed the scope of their jurisdiction, and therefore they must raise and decide jurisdictional questions that the parties either overlook or elect not to press." Henderson ex rel. Henderson v. Shinseki, 562 U.S. 428, 434 (2011). And so, despite all of the ink spilled to date in multiple prior Opinions, the Court now finds itself questioning its subject-matter jurisdiction in this long-running labor dispute.

         The nub of the case concerns a contested union-officer election held by Local 1300 of the Amalgamated Transit Union in June 2013. Plaintiffs Janice Murray and Tim (Alnett) Queen ran for President and Vice President respectively and won the election. The disappointed runner up for presidency, incumbent David McClure, challenged these results. He argued that Murray and Queen were not "in good standing" with the Union - a requirement under the ATU Constitution to be eligible for office - because they both owed outstanding debts to the Union. The ATU ultimately agreed that such debts rendered them ineligible for office and thus invalidated the election, causing the Local to hold a re-run election, which McClure won. Plaintiffs then sued the ATU for violating the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA) and for breaching their contract rights under the ATU Constitution. They requested a range of remedies that included reinstatement as duly elected officers, a declaration of invalidity regarding the ATU's decision and the subsequent rerun election, and damages for wages lost, emotional distress, and reputational harm.

         The suit has now proceeded through a motion for a temporary restraining order, a motion for a preliminary injunction, two periods of discovery, two summary-judgment motions, and one reconsideration motion. On resolving the most recent round, the Court observed potential jurisdictional defects in the suit - an issue that might well have saved considerable time and money had it been raised at the outset. As "[f]ederal courts are courts of limited subject-matter jurisdiction, " this Court must assure itself through all stages of the litigation that it has such jurisdiction "even if the parties ... are willing to assume it." Al-Zahrani v. Rodriguez, 669 F.3d 315, 317 (D.C. Cir. 2012). The Court raised the jurisdictional question with the parties and permitted Defendant to file a Motion to Dismiss, which is now ripe. Concluding that Congress has not given federal courts jurisdiction over a dispute such as this one, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         The particulars of this dispute are not tremendously important in resolving the jurisdictional question posed here. A few key facts will do the trick, and the reader may refer to the Court's second summary-judgment decision for a more thorough treatment of the case's factual and procedural backdrop. See Murray v. Amalgamated Transit Union (Murray III), No. 14-378, 2016 WL 1664775 (D.D.C. Apr. 26, 2016).

         The dispute centers on Local 1300's triennial election of officers (and, at least for some positions, ex officio delegates to the national ATU Convention) in which Murray and Queen ran together for President and Vice President and won the vote. Murray III, 2016 WL 1664775, at *1, 4. David McClure, Local 1300's President from 2007 to 2013, also ran for President but came in second. Id. at * 1-2. Dissatisfied with the outcome, and believing that neither Murray nor Queen was eligible to run for office, McClure challenged the election, going first to the Local. He argued that because both Plaintiffs had failed to pay an outstanding debt to the Union of $175.50 (for travel reimbursements that they should not have received), they were not members "in good standing" and thus could not properly run for office under rules established by the ATU Constitution. See Id. at *4; ATU Const., § 14.2 (good-standing requirement); id., § 21.9 (specifying that member is no longer in "good standing" when she fails to pay dues or any other "monies owed the Union" and the arrearage continues for a period of time).

         Local 1300 denied McClure's challenge. Murray III. 2016 WL 1664775, at *4. He then appealed to the ATU, filing a letter with its President, Larry Hanley, in August 2013. Id. After conducting an investigation, Hanley issued a decision in February 2014 concluding that Murray and Queen both failed the "good standing" requirement and thus had been, at the time of the June 2013 election, ineligible to run for office. Li That conclusion invalidated the June 2013 election results, stripped Plaintiffs of their offices, and necessitated that the Local hold a re-run election in early 2014, which McClure won. Id. Hanley took no other allegedly "disciplinary" action against them.

         Plaintiffs filed suit here shortly thereafter in March 2014 against both the ATU and Local 1300. The Court denied their motion for a temporary restraining order - in which they primarily sought to invalidate the rerun election - on March 18, 2014. See Murray v. Amalgamated Transit Union (Murray I), No. 14-378, 2014 WL 11281392, at *5 (D.D.C. Dec. 19, 2014) (first summary-judgment Opinion). Plaintiffs then filed an Amended Complaint that included only two counts asserted against the ATU.

         Count I alleges a violation of Title I of the LMRDA. Section 101(a)(5) of that statute, 29 U.S.C. § 411(a)(5), prohibits "labor organization[s]" from "fin[ing], suspending], expel[ling], or otherwise disciplining]" its members, "except for nonpayment of dues, " without providing notice and a hearing. Plaintiffs contend that Hanley's February 2014 decision constitutes "discipline[ against] Murray and Queen by deeming them to be . . . members not in good standing and ineligible to run for Local officer positions." Am. Compl., ¶ 37. In Count II, Plaintiffs claim that Defendant breached its contractual duties under the ATU Constitution by improperly deeming them ineligible for office, thereby stating a claim under either state contract law or § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947. While both counts were thus pled under distinct sources of law, each was tethered to the question of whether the ATU had improperly vacated the election results on account of Plaintiffs' outstanding debts and wrongly deemed Plaintiffs ineligible to participate in the rerun election.

         Defendant declined to file a motion to dismiss, and in summer 2014 the parties filed early-stage cross-motions for summary judgment, focusing on the merits of the dispute and Plaintiffs' eligibility for office. The Court denied both cross-motions in December 2014. See Murray I, 2014 WL 11281392, at *9-13. Plaintiffs then filed a motion for reconsideration, which the Court denied in April 2014. See Murray v. Amalgamated Transit Union (Murray II), 99 F.Supp.3d 149, 158 (D.D.C. 2015). After discovery, Defendant filed a second motion for summary judgment targeted at both liability and damages. The Court granted in part and denied in part that motion in April 2016, eliminating Plaintiffs request for punitive damages but otherwise concluding that genuine issues of fact precluded the award of summary judgment in Defendant's favor. See Murray III, 2016 WL 1664775, at *6-14.

         During consideration of this last motion, however, the Court developed a concern about its authority to hear the case. It issued an Order on May 2, 2016, in which it asked the parties whether section 403 of LMRDA's Title IV - which provides as the "exclusive" "remedy ... for challenging an election already conducted" a complaint to the Secretary of Labor, see 29 U.S.C. § 483 - stripped the Court of subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiffs suit. See ECF No. 64 (Order of May 2, 2016). After holding a hearing on May 12, 2016, the Court gave Defendant leave to file a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Minute Order of May 12, 2016. That briefing is now complete.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal courts possess only limited subject-matter jurisdiction, and "[i]t is to be presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction, and the burden of establishing the contrary rests upon the party asserting jurisdiction." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). "If the court determines at any time that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the action." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). Where, as here, the Court is "faced with what a party characterizes as a Rule 12(h)(3) motion, [it] should treat the motion as a traditional Rule 12(b)(1) motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction." Harbury v. Hayden, 444 F.Supp.2d 19, 26 (D.D.C. 2006) (citing Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 905-06 (D.C. Cir. 1987)). In so doing, the Court "is not limited to the allegations of the complaint, " Hohri v. United States, 782 F.2d 227, 241 (D.C. Cir. 1986), vacated on other grounds, 482 U.S. 64 (1987), but "may consider materials outside the pleadings in deciding whether to grant a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction." Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). "[P]laintiffs are not limited to evidence that meets the standards of admissibility required by the district court. Rather, they may rest their argument on their pleadings, bolstered by such affidavits and other written materials as they can otherwise obtain." Mwani v. bin Laden, 417 F.3d 1, 7 (D.C. Cir. 2005).

         III. Analysis

         Defendant's jurisdictional challenge is premised on a concept peculiar to the labor-relations world known as "Title IV preemption." See Casumpang v. Int'l Longshoremen's & Warehousemen's Union. Local 142. 269 F.3d 1042, 1057 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court will first provide a digest of this form of preemption and then apply it to the challenge at issue.

         A. Title IV Preemption

         The LMRDA "was Congress's first major attempt to regulate the internal affairs of labor unions." Local No. 82, Furniture & Piano Moving v. Crowley. 467 U.S. 526, 528 (1984); see 29 U.S.C. § 401(c) (statement of congressional purpose noting that LMRDA was enacted in part "to eliminate or prevent improper practices on the part of labor organizations"). It is a "complex statutory scheme" consisting of seven titles, see Crowley, 467 U.S. at 529, and two of them -Titles I and IV - play leading roles here.

         Title I, codified at 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-15, provides a "Bill of Rights" for union members, which is "designed to guarantee every union member equal rights to vote and otherwise participate in union decisions, freedom from unreasonable restrictions on speech and assembly, and protection from improper discipline." Crowley, 467 U.S. at 536-37; see 29 U.S.C. § 411; Molina v. Union de Trabajadores de Muelles y Ramas Anexas, Local 1740, 762 F.2d 166, 168 (1st Cir. 1985) ("The typical Title I claim involves an allegation of unequal treatment among union members.") (citing Calhoon v. Harvey, 379 U.S. 134 (1964)). Title IV, in contrast, codified at §§ 481-83, "regulates the conduct of elections for union officers, and therefore protects many of the same rights as does Title I." Crowley, 467 U.S. at 539. It gives "every member [of a union] in good standing" the right to "be eligible to be a candidate and to hold office (subject to . . . reasonable qualifications uniformly imposed) . . . without being subject to penalty, discipline, or improper interference or reprisal of any kind by such organization or any member thereof." 29 U.S.C. § 481(e).

         Each Title, significantly, also provides a distinct mechanism for enforcement. Title I grants a federal cause of action to individual members, who may bring suit to vindicate their Title I rights in federal district court. See id. § 412. Title IV, in turn, "provides an elaborate postelection procedure aimed solely at protecting union democracy through free and democratic elections, with primary responsibility for enforcement lodged with the Secretary of Labor." Crowley, 467 U.S. at 528. The remedy contemplated by Title IV involves a union member's filing a complaint with the Secretary, who may then sue the union directly in district court if it decides that the complaint warrants its intervention. See 29 U.S.C. § 482(a)-(c). Importantly, Congress in Title IV also included "an exclusivity provision, " which explains when and under what circumstances a Title IV remedy will preempt a plaintiffs ability to seek overlapping relief under other state laws (like torts or contracts) or other federal laws (like Title I of the LMRDA). See Crowley, 467 U.S. at 540. That provision provides in relevant part:

Existing rights and remedies to enforce the constitution and bylaws of a labor organization with respect to elections prior to the conduct thereof shall not be affected by the provisions of this subchapter. The remedy provided by this subchapter for challenging an election already conducted shall be exclusive.

29 U.S.C. § 483 (emphases added).

         In interpreting this provision, the Supreme Court concluded that Congress intended a "suit by the Secretary [to be] the 'exclusive' post-election remedy for a violation of Title IV." Trbovich v. United Mine Workers of Am., 404 U.S. 528, 531 (1972) (emphasis added) (quoting § 483); see Crowley, 467 U.S. at 541 ("[T]he exclusivity provision included in [§ 483] of Title IV plainly bars Title I relief when an individual union member challenges the validity of an election that has already been completed."). Reading that provision alongside Title I's limitation that district courts may only award "appropriate" relief, 29 U.S.C. § 412, the Court also concluded that Congress "would not have considered a court order requiring and judicially supervising a new election to be 'appropriate' relief under Title I, " meaning courts lack jurisdiction over such claims. Crowley, 467 U.S. at 543, 546.

         Crowley also suggests, however, that Title IV need not always divest courts of jurisdiction to hear election-related challenges, and it identified a possible exception to that general rule, albeit phrased in hypothetical rather than concrete terms. Specifically, it noted that § 483 might allow courts to entertain Title I or other federal- or state-law claims that are merely tangential to an already-completed election. As a result, the Court's conclusion that "ยง [483] of Title IV ...

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