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Amalgamated Transit Union v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 19, 2017

LOCAL 689, AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.

         Defendant Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority fired Seyoum Haile after an investigation into a fatal accident revealed that he had misrepresented his maintenance work on Metrorail tunnel fans. His union - Plaintiff Local 689 - contested this termination and ultimately secured an arbitral award that mitigated his penalty to a six-month suspension without pay. The Authority, however, refused to let Haile return to work. Plaintiff thus brought this action to enforce the Award, and Defendant responded by seeking to vacate it. As the Award meets the low bar required for confirmation, the Court has little choice but to grant Local 689' s Motion.

         I. Background

         The facts required to evaluate these Cross-Motions are straightforward. The Court first describes Haile's employment and termination. The following three sections then respectively discuss the Award, a related arbitral award, and the present litigation.

         A. Employment and Termination

         In 2002, WMATA hired Haile as a General Equipment Mechanic to work on the air-circulation fans that ventilate Metrorail tunnels and, in an emergency, prevent the accumulation of smoke therein. See ECF No. 9 (Motion to Confirm) at 4; id, Exh. 1 (Borchini Award) at 2, 4. Because Haile often did this job without direct supervision, the Authority required that he keep a daily log of his activities. Id. at 11.

         Seven years in, Haile's logbook caught him in a lie. Although he reported to WMATA that he had spent a particular day troubleshooting a fan leak, he had actually driven across town to his cousin's home, where a parking ticket on his WMATA-owned vehicle tipped the Authority off to his true location. Id. Haile then compounded his misdeed by making false statements during the subsequent investigation into this discrepancy. Id. As a result, WMATA suspended him for ten days. Id.

         Over the next several years, these events appeared to have chastened him. In particular, Haile executed his "primary responsibility" to conduct "monthly tunnel fan preventative maintenance inspections (PMis)" without apparent issue. Id. To complete these PMIs, he had to visually examine a fan, test its functioning, and document the completion of certain tasks on a checklist. Li at 4. The key testing portion of the protocol required that he turn the fan on both locally - via a manual switch - and remotely - by calling an operator at the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). Id. at 5.

         The ROCC operator would then control the fan through specific tasks as Haile observed its functioning. Id. The veneer on Haile's image of reform, though, began to peel away on January 12, 2015. That day, an electrical malfunction in a metro tunnel caused a train to fill with smoke, resulting in the death of one passenger and the hospitalization of several others. Id. at 1. During this emergency, a ventilation fan - on which Haile had supposedly performed PMIs - turned on remotely, ran without incident for several hours, but then burned out. Id. at 17.

         Although this malfunction did not cause the passengers' injuries, a federal investigation into the tragedy uncovered evidence that Haile had again been misrepresenting his work. Id. at 1. Upon inspection, WMATA's central-computer archives revealed that the burned-out fan had not been operated locally or remotely on September 24, October 3, or November 6, 2014, even though Haile had filled out PMI checklists showing that he had completed the testing on those dates. Id. at 17. (On the last date, though, an audio recording did at least indicate that Haile and his junior associate, Michael Binding, had tried unsuccessfully to get a ROCC operator to run through the required protocol. Id.)

         On January 20, 2015, the investigators notified the Authority of these findings. Id. at 1. WMATA, in response, launched its own inquiry, which included a records review and interviews with both Haile and Binding. Id. at 2. In the end, the Authority terminated Haile for submitting inaccurate maintenance logs and making untruthful statements during the investigative interviews (again), but Binding received only a 3-day suspension for his role. Id. at 2-3.

         B. Grievance and Arbitration

         Plaintiff - Haile's union -timely challenged his termination under the grievance provisions of its Collective Bargaining Agreement with WMATA. Id. at 3. The parties, accordingly, took their disagreement to a three-person arbitral panel that they tasked with deciding whether Haile "was discharged for sufficient cause and, if not, what shall be the remedy." Id. at 3.

         On April 4, 2016, that panel returned its 2-1 verdict in an "Opinion and Award" that "sustained in part and denied in part" his penalty. Id. at 22. The arbitral chair explained that, while the Authority had "sufficient cause" to punish Haile, the price for his actions should be "mitigated to a 180-day suspension without pay." Id. at 17, 22. The chair, in justifying this conclusion, first recognized that Haile's misconduct was only a small part of systemic maintenance issues at WMATA that its management had "condoned." Id. at 18-20 (describing acceptance by management of blank or incomplete checklists). He also discounted Haile's "dated" prior offense for leaving the job without permission as being remote and distinct from the current one. Id. at 18-19. Having done so, the arbitrator further resolved that any appropriate penalty now had to be "rehabilitative, rather than punitive, " and a weaker penalty would likely be sufficient in this context to deter any future misconduct on Haile's part. Id. at 22. Finally, the chair looked to mitigating circumstances that he believed warranted greater leniency, such as Binding's lighter penalty and the difficulties that mechanics like Haile experienced in getting ROCC operators to run through the PMI protocol. Id. (The dissenting view is not presented in the record.)

         In closing, the Opinion also noted that the panel "retain[ed] jurisdiction of th[e] case for 30 days, in the event of unresolved issues." Id. (emphasis added). According to the record in this case, however, those 30 days elapsed without either party's returning with any problem to the panel. In fact, it seems that neither the Union nor WMATA ever gave any indication to the arbitrators that unresolved issues remained as to the remedy prescribed by the Award.

         C. Back-Wages Award

         Implementation of this remedy nevertheless required the resolution of certain ancillary issues. Most notably, because Haile's new penalty consisted of only six months without pay, and he had been out of work for much longer by this time, the Authority needed to pay him for that additional period. On May 16, several days after the panel's jurisdiction had lapsed, the Authority thus sent his Union a memorandum entitled "Implementation of Arbitration Award- Seyoum Haile, " which laid out its calculation of these back wages. See ECF No. 9-2 (Affidavit of Douglas Taylor with exhibits) at 4 (Memorandum from Union to WMATA).

         The Union, however, disputed this sum. See Id. at 7-8 (Letter on May 23, 2016, from Douglas Taylor to Donna Gaffney). In an effort to work out the issue, the two parties then exchanged a few rounds of emails over several weeks about how to account for certain side-work that Haile had done during his absence. Id. at 10-18 (Emails between Taylor and Gaffney from May to June 2016).

         In these exchanges, the Authority never indicated that it planned to challenge the mitigation of Haile's punishment in the underlying Award. Id. Quite the contrary, in at least one email, the Union inquired as to why Haile had still not been put back on the work schedule, and WMATA seemed surprised to learn that this had not yet occurred. Id. at 15 (Emails between Gaffney and Taylor on June 6, 2016). That same Authority employee reported back to the Union three days later - on June 9, ...


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