Wednesday, February 12, 2014

For DFR junkies only

I guess this is not the most exciting case in the world, but many important cases are not exciting.
If you handle Duty of Fair Representation cases against labor unions, keep reading. This one concerns the statutes of limitation for these cases, and when they accrue.

The case is Kalyanaram v. American Association of University Professors, decided on February 3. The plaintiff taught at New York Institute of Technology. After students complained about plaintiff, the school brought him up on charges, which went to arbitration. After the arbitrator found that the school had just cause to fire him, plaintiff sued the union on a DFR claim (Duty of Fair Representation). He claimed the union did not properly represent him at the hearing. The claim is time-barred.

Under DFR jurisprudence, the statute of limitations is six months, and it accrues when the arbitrator issues the decision. This allows the employee to trust in the union's abilities before he decided that the union stabbed him in the back. While plaintiff filed his lawsuit almost 11 months after the arbitrator issued the final award, he says the case is timely because he filed it within six months after the state court confirmed the arbitration decision, denying his motion to vacate the award. True, the union contract allows aggrieved employees to challenge the arbitration decision in state court, but the arbitration decision in this case was designated a "Final Award." That was when the statute of limitations began to run.

Plaintiff also argues that the statute of limitations was tolled by the state court action he filed to vacate the arbitration decision. "The question of whether the statute of limitations on a DFR claim is tolled during litigation in state court to confirm or set aside an arbitration award is one of first impression in this Circuit," the Court of Appeals (Newman, Winter and Droney) says. Hard to believe an issue this exciting has never found its way to the Second Circuit. It has now.

"Although equitable tolling of limitations periods has been recognized in other contexts where pursuing a separate administrative remedy is a precondition to filing suit ... , no such tolling is available where an optional, parallel avenue of relief is pursued." That's what's going on here. Plaintiff's state court action to vacate his arbitration was a parallel action to the DFR claim that he filed in federal court. He did not have to bring that state court action, in other words, to maintain the DFR claim. "Success in [plaintiff's] petition to vacate the arbitration award was not a prerequisite to bringing a DFR claim against the union," the Court says.

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