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Franza v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters

decided: February 14, 1989.

JOSEPH FRANZA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT, CROSS-APPELLEE,
v.
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF TEAMSTERS, LOCAL 671 AND THOMAS ROBIDOUX, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES, CROSS-APPELLANTS



Appeal by Joseph Franza from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Nevas, J.) directed to be entered in favor of the defendants, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, et alia, in plaintiff's action brought under §§ 101 and 102 of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411 and 412.

Cardamone and Pierce, Circuit Judges, and Raggi, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Cardamone

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge.

This appeal presents the difficult question of whether appellant Joseph Franza's discharge from employment with a health services plan by appellee Thomas Robidoux, a union official who served as Chairman of the Plan, violated Franza's rights under Title I of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA or the Act), 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-415 (1982). After a jury trial on the merits in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Judge Nevas held as a matter of law that because Franza could show neither evidence of a scheme by union officials to suppress rank and file dissent, nor a direct infringement of his Title I rights, he had failed to establish a cognizable Title I claim. Franza v. International Bd. of Teamsters Local 671, 680 F. Supp. 496, 503 (D. Conn.1988). In affirming the district court's judgment it is necessary to construe the "Bill of Rights" established under Title I. As will be seen in the following discussion, these rights are not unalienable; instead, their enforcement depends upon judicial adjustment of those conflicting values that were recognized by Congress when it enacted the LMRDA.

I FACTS

In December 1981, prior to becoming a member of appellee International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 671 (Local 671 or Union), Franza took a position as a field auditor for Local 671's Health Services and Insurance Plan (Plan). He was hired by Richard Robidoux who, by virtue of his elected position as Secretary-Treasurer of the Local, was the Union's principal executive officer, and was also the Chairman of the Plan's Board of Trustees. The Plan administers several welfare and health insurance programs on behalf of the members of Local 671. Four trustees serve on the Board, two are representatives of the various employer-contributors to the Plan, and two are representatives of the Union. The Plan is subject to the fiduciary requirements of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1101-1114 (1982 & Supp. IV 1986). At the time that the events giving rise to this litigation occurred, Franza was both a Plan employee and a union member.

His duties as a Plan employee were varied. Although his job title was field auditor, Franza testified that he was also a "fund agent," which gave him access to certain employer records. Typically, he performed tasks such as picking up and sorting mail addressed to both the Plan and the Local, separating and depositing those checks addressed to the Plan, and conducting field audits, that is, reviewing the records of employer contributions to ensure that a proper contribution had been made. He also conducted individual audits for union members who had problems regarding their pensions. A fair reading of Franza's testimony reveals that he held a subordinate position, carried out Richard Robidoux's orders, and performed a variety of administrative tasks.

Appellees attempt to portray appellant as a policy-making employee of the Plan and confidante of Richard Robidoux, whose duties involved Union and Plan business. They point out that he continuously interacted with union officials and business agents, accompanied Local 671 agents to companies whose workforces the Local represented, delivered and picked up documents for the Union at the NLRB, and ran many errands for Secretary-Treasurer and Plan Chairman Richard Robidoux. In particular, appellees emphasize that despite his formal affiliation with the Plan and his title as a field auditor, Franza's work was closely related to the business of Local 671, and note that he was the Plan's sole union-member employee.

In the fall of 1985 the Local held its triennial elections and, as might be expected, Franza campaigned openly for the reelection of Richard Robidoux, the Local's 15-year incumbent Secretary-Treasurer. Robidoux's opponent in the election was his cousin, Thomas Robidoux, who headed what appellees describe as a "reform slate." During the election questions were raised concerning the propriety of Franza's employment by the Plan. Thomas Robidoux won the election, thereby terminating his cousin's long term tenure with the Local and as Chairman of the Plan's Board of Trustees. When, on December 23, 1985, Thomas Robidoux took office, he fired appellant.

II PRIOR PROCEEDINGS

One avenue of relief available to Franza for this loss of his employment was through administrative channels. Initially, he sought such relief against appellees, Local 671 and Thomas Robidoux, from the National Labor Relations Board alleging that his retaliatory discharge constituted a violation of § 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 157 (1982), and was an unfair labor practice under §§ 8(b)(1)(A) and 8(b)(2), 29 U.S.C. §§ 158(b)(1)(A), 158(b)(2) (1982). Because Thomas Robidoux's decision may have been privileged under Board precedent, and because Franza might have been subject to termination on account of his work record in any event, the Board's Regional Office found his claims to be without merit and refused to issue a complaint on his behalf.

Since the administrative route proved fruitless, Franza brought the instant action in the District of Connecticut against the same appellees alleging that he was terminated in retaliation for his support of Richard Robidoux in violation of the equal rights and free speech provisions of §§ 101(a)(1) and 101(a)(2) of Title I of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411(a)(1) and 411(a)(2) (1982). Specifically Franza argued that although he retained his union membership and could attend meetings, such an employment-related reprisal chilled his and other union members' exercise of their statutory rights to express their views and to vote and participate in union elections and meetings. He also alleged that his termination--in addition to infringing his rights as a union member--was part of a pattern to suppress dissent and purge from the union those who did not support the election of Thomas Robidoux.

Local 671 and Robidoux counterclaimed, contending that Franza's employment violated the governing provisions of the Plan because he was not qualified to perform the duties of the office and merely performed personal services for Richard Robidoux. They argued further that Robidoux's fiduciary responsibilities to the Plan under ERISA required that he discharge Franza.

At a trial on the merits the jury was asked to answer six special interrogatories. The jury answered only one in the affirmative, namely, that Franza had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that he had been retaliated against because of his support for Richard Robidoux in the election. The district court nonetheless ruled that appellant had failed to state a cause of action cognizable under Title I of the LMRDA. See 680 F. Supp. at 504. The trial court held that because Franza remained free to participate in union affairs and to criticize the union leadership and policies, his rights were not "infringed" within the meaning of Title I or controlling precedents. Id. at 503. Moreover, it accepted the jury's finding that Franza's ...


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