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Hillman v. American Federation of Government Employees

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 28, 2019

DEVIN HILLMAN et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROYCE C. LAMBERTH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case pits two union members against their union's leadership. After former D.C. employees Devin Hillman and Tara Blunt wrote a letter criticizing the president of the local American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) chapter, the union stripped their membership, ejected them from officer positions, blocked them from future meetings, and thwarted their participation in an upcoming election. So Hillman and Blunt sued, bringing three claims under the Labor-Management Reporting & Disclosure Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-503 (LMRDA), one claim under the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141-197 (LMRA), and two claims under D.C. common law.

         AFGE and its Local 2741 seek dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim. The Court will grant the union's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction for one of Hillman and Blunt's LMRDA claims, for their LMRA claim, and for their common law claims. But the Court will deny the union's motion to dismiss the remaining two LMRDA claims since each states a legally sufficient claim properly before the Court.

         For their part, Hillman and Blunt ask the Court to reconsider its previous denial of a preliminary injunction. The Court declines.

         I. BACKGROUND

         After they were hired as assistant pool managers with D.C.'s Department of Parks and Recreation, Hillman and Blunt joined AFGE and Local 2741, which represents current and former D.C. government employees. Hillman was even elected chief shop steward. But the Department fired them for insubordination, leaving their membership in flux while they appealed to D.C.'s Office of Employment Appeals.

         Hillman and Blunt attempted to pay dues while their appeals were pending. But Local 2741 president David Brooks refused to accept them. Compl. ¶¶ 29-32, 130.

         Hillman and Blunt next contacted AFGE. National Vice President Eric Bunn responded and confirmed they could maintain Local 2741 membership pending their appeals if they paid dues, which Bunn agreed to accept directly (ordinarily, local chapters collect dues). Id. ¶ 33-37.

         Regardless, Brooks refused to recognize Hillman and Blunt's membership. Id. 40. When Hillman and Blunt came to a meeting, Brooks called the police. Id. 44. And when the police refused to get involved, Brooks and two others canceled the meeting and fled the building. Id. 45. The remaining attendees reconvened the meeting, reinstated Hillman and Blunt, restored Hillman as chief shop steward, and made Blunt the interim secretary-treasurer. Id. ¶¶ 46-53. AFGE later suspended Brooks as local president in part because he "refus[ed] to acknowledge the membership of or accept dues tendered on behalf of Hillman and Blunt." AFGE named Barbara Jones the new local president. Id. at 59-58.

         Hillman and Blunt's troubles persisted. When Blunt moved to appoint Hillman to serve out Jones's unexpired term as vice president, Jones refused to call a vote on the properly seconded motion. Id. 81. After Jones refused to put other properly seconded motions to a vote, id. 84, Blunt wrote a letter criticizing her behavior. Id. 85. The letter vented that, despite Blunt's position as interim secretary-treasurer, Jones had not yet provided access to Local 2741's bank accounts. Id. 86. Blunt further accused Jones of being "dictatorial." Id. 87.

         A few days later, Nate Nelson-the national representative for the AFGE district encompassing Local 2741-summarily removed Blunt from the secretary-treasurer role, calling her letter "unprofessional" and claiming her "attempt[] to appoint Devlin Hillman to the Vice President position without an election by the members"' violated local bylaws. Id. 88. In response, Blunt objected to AFGE president J. David Cox that her removal violated the national and local constitutions. Id. 91. Cox never responded. Id.

         Before the next meeting, Nelson notified the local executive committee that AFGE barred Hillman and Blunt from attending. Id. 92. Nelson also removed Hillman and Blunt from the local executive committee. Id. 93. But Nelson blinked after Hillman and Blunt's counsel warned that his actions could violate the LMRDA, permitting them to attend as partially reinstated members. Id. 95.

         At the meeting, Jones announced that AFGE disavowed the minutes from the prior meeting, and thus the votes for Hillman as chief shop steward and Blunt as secretary-treasurer did not count. Id. 103. She claimed that AFGE instructed her to remove Hillman and Blunt from their officer positions as a result. Id. 98.

         Blunt continued depositing her and Hillman's dues into Local 2741's bank account, even though she was no longer secretary-treasurer. Id. 107. With hours before the next general membership meeting. Nelson told Hillman and Blunt they could neither attend nor participate in the upcoming triennial elections because they had not paid dues to the local treasurer, an executive officer, or the chapter's mailing address, as local policy required. Id. 110. When Hillman and Blunt protested, Nelson allowed them to prove they deposited their dues in the local's bank account. Id. 112. And Nelson retreated after Hillman and Blunt produced receipts, deeming them members in good standing. Id. 113-116. But he quickly reversed himself again, changing his mind after "additional research" and concluding Hillman and Blunt remained ineligible. Id. 117-118.

         When Hillman and Blunt went to the meeting and tried to pay their dues. Jones claimed AFGE told her to remove them and to refuse their payment. Id. 121. And just before the election, Local 2741's Nominations Committee chair confirmed Hillman and Blunt could neither vote nor run for office. Id. 127.

         Hillman and Blunt sued AFGE and Local 2741 with days before the election. Though untangling their complaint takes work, the Court can tease out six different claims for relief:

1. that taking adverse actions against Hillman and Blunt without requisite process violated the LMRDA ("the process claim");
2. that taking adverse action against Hillman and Blunt for criticizing Jones violated the LMRDA ("the retaliation claim");
3. that barring Hillman and Blunt from the chapter election violated the LMRDA ("the ...

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