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Stewart v. International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 26, 2017

SONSIA STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
INTERNATIONAL UNION, SECURITY, POLICE AND FIRE PROFESSIONALS OF AMERICA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Sonsia Stewart, a former security officer, was fired by Paragon Systems, Inc. after allegedly falling asleep on the job. Her union, International Union, Security, Police and Fire Professionals of America (“SPFPA”), represented her during the grievance process, and she now asserts two claims against SPFPA stemming from her dismissal and those proceedings. She argues, first, that SPFPA breached its duty of fair representation by failing to press certain arguments with Paragon. Second, she contends that SPFPA breached the collective bargaining agreement between the union and Paragon by failing to ensure that she was reinstated or that the discipline that Paragon imposed was “otherwise modif[ied].” Dkt. 7 at 43 (Compl. ¶ 74). SPFPA has moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that Stewart's duty of fair representation claim is time barred and that her contract claim is preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act. For the reasons explained below, the Court will GRANT the union's motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The complaint, Dkt. 7 at 32-54, [1] sets forth the relevant facts, which the Court must accept as true for purposes of the pending motion. See Wood v. Moss, --- U.S. ---, 134 S.Ct. 2056, 2065-67 & n.5 (2014).

         In September 2009, Paragon hired Stewart to work the night shift as a Special Police Officer at a federal office building in the District of Columbia. Dkt. 7 at 33-34 (Compl. ¶¶ 9- 10). As a Special Police Officer, Stewart was required to patrol the building throughout the evening and to stop at various checkpoints, but she was also permitted several breaks. Id. at 34 (Compl. ¶¶ 11-16). In the early hours of July 11, 2013, Stewart completed a “checkpoint” visit and retired to the women's locker room for a break. Id. at 36 (Compl. ¶ 30). She took off her utility belt and placed it on a nearby table so that she could straighten her uniform. Id. (Compl. ¶ 31). Denise Bright, a colleague with whom Stewart had quarreled, entered the room. Id. at 34-36 (Compl. ¶¶ 19-29, 31). Stewart “sat down and looked down to avoid seeing or conversing with [Officer Bright].” Id. at 36 (Compl. ¶ 33). When she “did not hear Officer Bright moving around, ” Stewart “became concerned [and] turned around to see what Officer Bright was doing.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 34). At that moment, “Officer Bright placed her phone in . . . Stewart's face and took a picture of [Stewart].” Id. (Compl. ¶ 34). The photo depicts Stewart with “her eyes . . . closed and her equipment at her side.”[2] Id. at 37 (Compl. ¶ 39). Officer Bright sent a copy of the photo to a more senior officer and reported to him that Stewart had been sleeping while on duty. Id. (Compl. ¶ 37).

         On August 8, 2013, Stewart was summoned to a meeting with two senior officers and the union president. Id. (Compl. ¶ 38). At the meeting, “[s]he was presented with a picture of herself in the women's locker room from July 11, 2013, [that] appeared to show that her eyes were closed.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 38). She was suspended that day and fired on August 20, 2013, for “neglect of duty and post abandonment.” Id. at 52 (termination letter); see Id. at 37 (Compl. ¶¶ 39-40).

         By virtue of her employment at Paragon, Stewart became a member of SPFPA Local 296, “the sole and exclusive bargaining representative of [Paragon] employees.” Id. at 33 (Compl. ¶¶ 7-8). As relevant here, the collective bargaining agreement between Paragon and SPFPA provided:

No employee shall be discharged or disciplined without just cause, and discharge and discipline matters shall be subject to the grievance and arbitration procedures contained in the [a]greement. However, an arbitrator shall not have the authority to reduce a discharge or modify the discipline imposed by the Company for a proven violation of any of the following: . . . Neglect of Duty (including sleeping while on duty[)] [and] Unauthorized [P]ost [A]bandonment.

Id. at 42-43 (Compl. ¶ 71) (quoting agreement).

         After her termination, Stewart and SPFPA initiated the grievance process set forth in the agreement. Id. at 37 (Compl. ¶ 41). Her union representative, Guy Thomas, informed her that he would seek reinstatement and backpay on her behalf and that she could “enter arbitration with the union to settle the case.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 42). Meanwhile, Stewart applied for unemployment benefits from the District of Columbia. Id. at 38 (Compl. ¶ 44). Her claim was initially denied on the grounds that she had been fired for “gross misconduct, ” but she appealed and represented herself at a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). Id. (Compl. ¶ 44). The ALJ reversed the denial of unemployment benefits in November 2015. Id. (Compl. ¶ 44).

         In April 2014, Thomas met briefly with Paragon representatives to schedule a meeting to discuss Stewart's termination. Id. at 37 (Compl. ¶ 43). Shortly thereafter, Stewart called him “to discuss what had happened at her unemployment hearing.” Id. at 38 (Compl. ¶ 44). She informed Thomas that “the ALJ did not find evidence that she was asleep [while] working on July 9, 2013 [sic] . . . nor evidence that she had abandoned her post.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 45). Thomas replied that the ALJ's findings “did not matter.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 46). After meeting with Paragon's representatives a second time, Thomas “inform[ed] [Stewart that] she would not be rehired or receive [backpay]” due to the photo. Id. (Compl. ¶ 47). Stewart asked Thomas to proceed to arbitration “as was her right” under the collective bargaining agreement, but Thomas responded that the union would not pursue arbitration. Id. (Compl. ¶ 48). Stewart last spoke with Thomas on May 11, 2014. Id. at 38 (Compl. ¶ 49). He informed her that “the [u]nion fail[ed] to properly represent her[, ] thus officially ending her employment.” Id. (Compl. ¶ 49).

         In October 2016, Stewart filed this action in D.C. Superior Court against SPFPA and Paragon. Her claims against Paragon for wrongful termination and breach of the collective bargaining agreement were dismissed after she failed to serve Paragon in a timely manner. See Dkt. 1-4 at 1; Dkt. 7 at 16. With respect to SPFPA, she alleges that the union breached both its duty of fair representation and the collective bargaining agreement. Dkt. 7 at 40-43 (Compl. ¶¶ 50-56, 70-75). She seeks $174, 000 in damages and attorney's fees. Id. at 43-44 (Compl. Request for Relief).

         SPFPA removed the action to this Court, Dkt. 1, and has now moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, Dkt. 4. The union contends that Stewart's duty of fair representation claim is time barred and that her contract claim is preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”), 29 U.S.C. § 185. Dkt. 4-1 at 4-6.

         II. ...


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