Court Rules Union Did Not Discriminate Against Black Firefighter

The First US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a Massachusetts IAFF local that was sued for race discrimination and retaliation by one of its members. Brookline firefighter Gerald Alston filed suit back in 2015 accusing the city, Brookline Firefighters – International Association of Firefighters Local 950 and several individuals of discrimination and retaliation. Here are some links to Alston’s previous Fire Law headlines.

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The trial court ruled in favor of the all of the defendants, prompting Alston to appeal. Due to the complexity of the issues, the First Circuit opted to issue serial decisions, three in total. The first ruling involved an individual defendant, Stanley Spiegel. The second involved the city and several individual defendants. The decision handed down today dealt solely with Local 950.

In ruling in favor of Local 950, the court provides a good overview of the union’s duty of fair representation. Quoting from the decision:

  • The gravamen of Alston’s action against the Union is his claim that the Union’s representation of him was tainted by discrimination and retaliation.
  • In service of this claim, he alleges that the Union failed to represent him fairly on account of his race, condoned the Town’s racially discriminatory and retaliatory actions toward him, neglected to enforce compliance with the CBA’s anti-discrimination provision, better represented other (non-black) firefighters with similar disciplinary records, acted so as to deprive him of the equal protection of the laws, retaliated against him for speaking out against racist policies, and conspired with the Town and Town officials to deprive him of constitutionally assured rights and privileges.
  • The district court rejected these importunings, concluding that Alston had identified no genuine issues of material fact and that the Union was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
  • Before us, Alston says that the district court’s entry of summary judgment “ignored” relevant evidence and that the record, properly read, evinces genuine issues of material fact regarding certain aspects of the Union’s treatment of him.
  • The operative version of Alston’s complaint alleged that the Union’s conduct toward Alston violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
  • Before the district court, Alston recast this allegation: he posited that the Union’s acquiescence in the Town’s discriminatory and retaliatory conduct, as well as its “omissions when it had a duty to act,” transgressed the Union’s duty of fair representation.
  • Alston went on to hypothesize that the breach of that duty violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981.
  • The district court concluded that the proffered facts did not make out a violation of Alston’s right “to make and enforce contracts” under section 1981.
  • On appeal, Alston attempts to reinvent his argument. He posits that “the Union violated its contractual obligations to him by condoning and participating” in the Town’s allegedly discriminatory behavior.
  • As framed, this claim appears to draw its essence from state contract law, not from the Union’s duty of fair representation.
  • The rub, though, is that Alston did not present a claim for discriminatory breach of contract below. His attempt to switch horses in midstream comes well beyond its expiration date.
  • At all relevant times, the Union had a CBA with the Town for a bargaining unit that encompassed the Town’s firefighters.
  • “As the exclusive bargaining representative of the employees,… a union has a statutory duty fairly to represent all of those employees, both in its collective bargaining…  and in its enforcement of the resulting collective bargaining agreement.”
  • This duty is commonly known as the “duty of fair representation.”
  • A union breaches this duty by acting arbitrarily, discriminatorily, or in bad faith toward a member.
  • Negligence – without more – is insufficient to establish a breach of the duty.
  • The duty of fair representation is colored by the special relationship between a union and its members.
  • The nature of this special relationship has a direct bearing on judicial review: in determining whether a breach of the duty of fair representation has occurred, an inquiring court’s evaluation of the evidence concerning the union’s performance must be “highly deferential” to the union.
  • This deference imposes a “heavy burden” on a member of the bargaining unit who asserts a breach of the duty.
  • A cardinal reason for this deference is that the collective bargaining system necessarily “subordinates the interests of an individual employee to the collective interests of all employees in a bargaining unit.”
  • The deference afforded to the union’s decisionmaking recognizes its obligation to balance the competing interests of all union members.
  • We start with [Alston’s] “going postal” comments. Affording the Union’s decisionmaking the requisite degree of deference, it was the Union’s obligation both to protect its members from perceived threats to their safety and to ensure that any discipline meted out to Alston comported with the CBA.
  • Although those obligations were not congruent, the Union had to do what it could to carry out both of them.
  • As long as the Union satisfied its responsibility to balance those competing interests, the fact that it took Alston’s comments more seriously than he might have wished was merely an unfortunate byproduct.
  • The bottom line is that Alston offered no definite, competent evidence from which a rational factfinder could determine that either [the union president] or the Union acted in bad faith.
  • Although Alston and the Union may not have always been on the same page, that is a far cry from the requisite showing that the Union engaged in race-based discrimination or retaliation against Alston, that it failed to afford him fair representation, that it acted in ways calculated to deny his equal protection or free speech rights, or that it purposefully participated with the Town in a conspiracy proscribed under the civil rights statutes.
  • For the reasons elucidated above, the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the Union is Affirmed.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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