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Pacific Coast District, Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association AFL-CIO v. Liberty Maritime Corp.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 14, 2019

District No. 1, Pacific Coast District, Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, AFL-CIO, Plaintiff,
v.
Liberty Maritime Corporation, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [DKT. # 8]

          RICHARD J. LEON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff District No. 1, Pacific Coast District, Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, AFL-CIO ("MEBA" or "Union") brings suit against Liberty Maritime Corporation ("Liberty" or "Company") pursuant to Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 185, challenging the Company's appointment of an arbitrator to resolve disputes under the parties' labor contract. The Union seeks a declaratory judgment and related injunctive relief, including that this Court order Liberty to remove the current arbitrator and order the parties to appoint a new arbitrator. See Complaint [Dkt. # 1] ("Compl.") ¶¶ 70-78. Before this Court is Liberty's Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim. See Def.'s Motion to Dismiss [Dkt. # 8] ("Def.'s Mot."). For the following reasons, the defendant's motion [Dkt. # 8] is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff MEBA is a labor union that represents employees in the United States maritime industry. Compl. ¶ 6. Liberty is a commercial shipping company that employs individuals represented by the Union on several of its seagoing vessels. Compl. ¶ 7. The dispute here grows out of the 30-year-old collective bargaining agreement (hereinafter "agreement" or "labor contract") between the Union and Liberty, which has been the source of numerous disputes before this court and others.[1] Compl. ¶¶ 12, 14 (referencing Liberty's 1988 signature to the Union's 1986-1990 Tanker Vessels Master Agreement and the 1986-1990 Dry Cargo Vessels Master Agreement).

         Under Section 2 of the labor contract, titled "Grievance Procedure and Arbitration," "[a]ll disputes relating to the interpretation or performance of [the] Agreement shall be determined in accordance with the provisions of this Section." Compl. ¶ 13 (citing ECF No. 1-1, at Section 2(a), p. 19; ECF No. 1-2, at Section 2(a), p. 18).[2] The agreement then lays out specific procedures for adjudicating grievances:

         Selection of the Licensed Personnel Board: "There shall be a Licensed Personnel Board consisting of two (2) persons appointed by the Union and two (2) persons appointed by the Company," which shall "resolve[] any grievance either by majority vote or by mutual agreement." ECF No. 1-1, at Section 2(b), p. 19; ECF No. 1-2, at Section 2(b), p. 19. In the event that the four-member Licensed Personnel Board (hereinafter "LPB") cannot resolve the grievance by mutual assent or a majority vote, a designated Arbitrator, acting as LPB Chair, is authorized to render a binding decision. Id.

         Appointment of Arbitrator: "The Arbitrator will be appointed by mutual agreement for a one (1) year period, renewable for one (1) year periods by mutual consent." ECF No. 1-1, at Section 2(d), p. 20; ECF No. 1-2, at Section 2(d), p. 19.

         Monthly Meetings of LPB Board: "A fixed date in each calendar month...shall be designated for the meeting of the Licensed Personnel Board with respect to any grievances that each party may have. The Company and the Union agree that in order to properly have a grievance submitted to the Licensed Personnel Board at its regular monthly meeting, at least a five (5) days' notice in writing must be given to the other party, setting forth the nature of the grievance and the relief requested, unless such time limitation is waived." ECF No. 1-1, at Section 2(e), p. 20; ECF No. 1-2, at Section 2(e), p. 19-20.

         Special Meetings of LPB Board: "Either party may, in addition to such fixed meetings, have the right, by telegraphic notice to the other party and to the Arbitrator, to request a convening of the Licensed Personnel Board to consider a grievance, the nature of which requires immediate disposition. In such event, the Board shall meet as expeditiously as possible, but in no event later than twenty-four (24) hours after receipt of said notice." ECF No. 1-1, at Section 2(f), p. 21; ECF No. 1-2, at Section 2(f), p. 20.

         Another contractual provision is also relevant here. The Supplemental Memorandum of Understanding ("Supplemental MOU"), expressly incorporated into the parties' agreement, see Compl. ¶¶ 14-15, states that the arbitrator shall be designated by either "the United States Secretary of Labor or the American Arbitration Association." ECF No.1-1.atpp. 123-24, ECF No. 1-2, at pp. 140-41.

         The Union submitted "a number of grievances under the parties' labor contract" in April 2018, alleging "contract violations the Union alleged were committed by Liberty concerning the manning of its vessels, among other things." Compl. ¶ 16. After the parties failed to resolve the grievances, see Compl. ¶ 18, Liberty moved for implementation of the grievance procedure provided for in Section 2 of the agreement on June 12, 2018, to initiate the process of appointing a LPB to hear the parties' contractual disputes. See ECF No. 1-10, at p. 2. Liberty named its two LPB members and suggested a meeting date of June 18, 2018. Compl. ¶ 23.

         That is when communications between the parties broke down. In response to Liberty's request, the Union rejected the proposed June 18 meeting date and opposed the use of what it called "defunct" LPB procedures, insisting that the parties instead "follow[] the practice of seeking an arbitrator" outside of the labor agreement. ECF No. 1-11, at p. 2.[3] After several communications back and forth, Liberty proposed a new meeting date of June 26, 2018, ECF No. 1-14, at p. 2, but the Union rejected that date as well on the grounds that the Union's legal counsel was going to be out of town. Compl. ¶¶ 34-36. Liberty notified the Union of its intention to go forward with the meeting nonetheless, stating that there was "[n]o provision" in the parties' labor contract "for counsel to be present during the LPB's internal deliberations or to advise the LPB when it undertakes its deliberations." ECF No. 1-18, at p. 2. The meeting took place on June 26, 2018, without any Union representatives in attendance. Compl. ¶ 59. After the meeting, Liberty notified the Union that the Company's two LPB members had voted to appoint an arbitrator. Compl. ¶¶ 63-64. The Union strongly objected to the arbitrator's appointment, arguing that "he had no authority to act as the arbitrator of the parties LPB because he had not been mutually appoint[ed]." Compl. ¶ 65.

         On July 9, 2018, the Union filed suit in this Court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, asking me to both enjoin any arbitration from proceeding under the appointed arbitrator and to also compel Liberty to participate in the selection of a new arbitrator. See generally Compl. The Union argues that it is entitled to such relief as a matter of law based on the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Compl. ¶¶ 70-78. Namely, the Union maintains that because Liberty failed to follow the grievance procedures in Section 2 of the parties' labor contract, the arbitrator's appointment is invalid and he has no authority to resolve their contractual disputes. Compl. ¶¶ 70-75. On July 18, 2018, Liberty filed a motion to dismiss the Union's complaint, arguing that the agreement's arbitration provisions govern this procedural dispute over the appointment of the arbitrator, and that parties' compliance with any of the grievance procedures in the agreement is a matter for the arbitrator, not the court, to decide. Def.'s Mot. at 1-2.

         STANDARD ...


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