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United States District Court, Southern District of New York

February 3, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Loretta A. Preska, United States District Judge


Plaintiffs Vincent Sombrotto ("Sombrotto") and Edwin Gonzalez ("Gonzalez"), who are proceeding pro se, bring the above-captioned action against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (hereinafter, "IBT"), its president, James Hoffa ("Hoffa"), and Local 966 of the IBT ("Local 966") under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, 29 U.S.C. § 401 et seq. ("LMRDA"), seeking to set aside the disciplinary action taken against them by the IBT. (Plaintiffs' Complaint, hereafter "Complaint" or "Compl.," ¶ 1). Before this Court now are defendants' summary judgment motions filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 as well as a plaintiffs' cross-motion for leave to amend their complaint to add the Independent Review Board ("IRB") as a "necessary party" and to "make it clear that [the complaint] is being brought pursuant to the United States v. IBT [88 Civ. 4486 (LAP)]." (Plaintiff's Affidavit in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss and in Support of the Motion for Leave to File an Amended Answer, cited herein as "Pl.'s Opp.," at ¶ 43). For the reasons stated below, the complaint is dismissed without prejudice to plaintiffs' right to pursue their challenge in the context of the Consent Decree under United States v. IBT, 88 Civ. 4486 (LAP).


The genesis of this case stretches back nearly a decade. In 1994, following an investigation by the IRB, the IRB found that Local 966 was not being run for the benefit of its members and recommended that the IBT impose a trusteeship on Local 966. (September 13, 2002 Letter from AUSA Andrew Schilling to the Court, hereafter "Govt. Ltr.," at 2). Among the IRB's findings was that Local 966's financial condition and its membership rolls had been declining significantly in the years immediately preceding the IRB's report. (Id.). The IRB also found that, despite the decline in membership, Sombrotto, the President of Local 966, Gonzalez, the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 966, and other officers and business agents of Local 966 had been organizing employees for non-IBT locals, including locals run by relatives of Sombrotto and Bryan McCarthy, the local's attorney. (Id.). The IRB also found that the officers, including Sombrotto and Gonzalez, embezzled union funds and engaged in other forms of financial misconduct at the local. (Id.). On April 27, 1994, acting pursuant to the IRB's recommendation, the IBT placed Local 966 in trusteeship. (Id.).

On June 3, 1994, the IRB recommended to Gene Moriarty, Trustee of Local 966, that disciplinary charges be brought against Sombrotto and Gonzalez, among other Local 966 officers, for actions taken by those officers prior to the imposition of the trusteeship. (Id.; Declaration of Stuart Lichten, hereafter "Lichten Decl.," Exh. B). Following a series of hearings on those charges, then-IBT General President Ronald Carey issued a decision dated May 16, 1995 permanently expelling Sombrotto and Gonzalez from the IBT. (Compl. ¶¶ 31, 33, 38, 39; Govt. Ltr. at 2). The IBT found that Sombrotto organized and directed others to organize for non-IBT unions, thereby breaching his oath of allegiance to the IBT, bringing reproach upon the union, engaging in dual unionism, and interfering with the IBT's legal obligations. (Govt. Ltr. at 2). The IBT also found that Sombrotto embezzled Local 966 funds, attempted to influence the operation of an employment benefit plan, improperly entered into a collective bargaining agreement and failed to hold genuine membership meetings. (Id.). With regard to Gonzalez, the IBT found that he engaged in dual unionism, breached his fiduciary 3 duties, and engaged in embezzlement, among other things. (Id.).

Sombrotto and Gonzalez appealed this decision to the IBT General Executive Board ("GEB"). However, pursuant to the Consent Decree entered into under United States v. IBT, 88 Civ. 4486 (LAP) (hereafter, the "Consent Decree"), which requires that the IRB "monitor all matters which it has referred for action," the IRB reviewed the IBT's May 16, 1995 decision. (Lichten Decl., Exh. A). By letter dated June 22, 1995, the IRB notified the IBT that the disciplinary action taken against Sombrotto and Gonzalez was not inadequate. (Lichten Decl., Exh. C; Govt. Ltr. at 3). Then, on October 10, 1995, the GEB advised Sombrotto and Gonzalez that it had decided their appeal and affirmed Carey's decision. (Govt. Ltr. at 3). The GEB did not advise Sombrotto and Gonzalez that they could have or should have appealed Carey's decision directly to the IRB or that they could appeal the GEB's decision to the IRB as well. (Id.).

On April 9, 1996, Sombrotto, Gonzalez and others commenced an action against the IBT, Local 966 and others in this Court. See Sombrotto et al. v. IBT et al., 96 Civ. 2524 (S.D.N.Y.). Brought under sections 101 and 102 of the LMRDA, Sombrotto and Gonzalez's 1996 lawsuit challenged the lawfulness of the disciplinary action taken against them by the IBT. (Govt. Ltr. at 3). Although the case was originally assigned to Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, on July 23, 1996, the case was transferred to Judge David N. Edelstein at the request of the Government because, under the All Writs Order entered in United States v. IBT, 88 Civ. 4486 (LAP), all lawsuits implicating the Consent Decree must be heard by the District Judge overseeing the implementation of the Decree.*fn1 See United States v. IBT ("All Writs Order"), 728 F. Supp. 1032 (S.D.N.Y. 1990). In July 1998, Judge Edelstein recused himself from the matter, and the case was reassigned to Judge Robert P. Patterson. On November 24, 1999, because Sombrotto had been indicted by a New York grand jury, the parties stipulated to dismiss the lawsuit without prejudice to plaintiffs' reinstating the case depending on the outcome of Sombrotto's criminal case. (Govt. Ltr. at 3; Compl. Exh. A).

On October 22, 2001, after the state criminal charges against Sombrotto were dismissed, Sombrotto and Gonzalez commenced the instant action, also under the LMRDA, which was essentially identical to their earlier action. (Govt. Ltr. at 3). In accordance with the November 24, 1999 Stipulation of Dismissal of the earlier action, the case was assigned to Judge Patterson. (Id.). However, at the Government's request, I accepted transfer of this matter pursuant to the All Writs Order in United States v. IBT, 88 Civ. 4486 (LAP).

On May 23, 2002 and May 28, 2002, the Local 966 defendants and the IBT defendants moved, respectively, for summary judgment, arguing that Sombrotto and Gonzalez were precluded from commencing an action under the LMRDA to set aside their discipline because any such challenge must be brought under the Consent Decree. (Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant International Brotherhood of Teamsters' Motion for Summary Judgment; Local 966 Defendants' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment). In response, Sombrotto and Gonzalez submitted an affidavit by Sombrotto in opposition to the motion, in which Sombrotto and Gonzalez also cross-moved for leave to file an amended complaint. (Plaintiffs' Affidavit in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss and in Support of the Motion for Leave to File an Amended Answer, "Pl.'s Aff.," dated July 19, 2002). In addition to plaintiffs' contention that their action was indeed brought "pursuant to the Consent Decree" because both their original action in 1996 and their renewed action in 2002 were assigned to the District Judge overseeing the Consent Decree, Sombrotto and Gonzalez also requested "leave to file an amended complaint pursuant to which a necessary party, the IRB, would be added and the caption changed to make clear that it is being brought pursuant to the United States v. IBT." (Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 43).

Because these motions implicate the Consent Decree, the Government wrote to the Court on August 6, 2002 and requested the opportunity to be heard. On August 16, 2002, that request was granted, and on September 13, 2002, the Government submitted a letter expressing its belief that it is not necessary for this Court to resolve the IBT's motion to preclude Sombrotto and Gonzalez from pursuing their LMRDA complaint as a separate action. (Govt. Ltr. at 4). Rather, according to the Government, the only questions remaining for this Court are whether the Consent Decree process remains available to plaintiffs and, if so, how they may properly pursue their remedies in accordance with the Consent Decree. (Id.). The Government, in its letter, concluded that the Consent Decree process remains fully available to plaintiffs to challenge their expulsions and, accordingly, recommended that this Court dismiss plaintiffs' LMRDA complaint without prejudice to plaintiffs' right to pursue their challenge in the context of the Consent Decree. (Govt. Ltr. at 4, 8). The Government also recommended that, because the IRB is an internal IBT entity that has never been considered a necessary party to the Consent Decree, this Court deny the motion to add the IRB as a party defendant. (Govt. Ltr. at 8). Lastly, the Government expressed its believe that this Court would be within its discretion to establish a schedule providing for a prompt resolution of Sombrotto and Gonzalez's matter. (Id.).


I. The Consent Decree Framework

Following certification of the results of the IBT's 1991 election, the Consent Decree provided for the establishment of the IRB to continue the disciplinary reform begun by the court-appointed Investigations Officer and Independent Administrator. "The IRB is a permanent institution vested with power to investigate and eradicate corruption, and to monitor the IBT's attempts to eradicate corruption." United States v. IBT ("IRB Rules"), 803 F. Supp. 761, 780 (S.D.N.Y. 1992), aff'd as modified, 998 F.2d 1101 (2d Cir. 1993). The IRB rules govern the operation of the IRB and were approved by this Court and the Court of Appeals. See id.

Unlike the former court-appointed officers, the IRB must refer all disciplinary matters to the IBT before conducting a hearing. Matters are referred in the form of an IRB Investigative Report that sets out the charges, findings and recommendations. Upon receipt of the proposed charges, the IBT must "promptly" take "whatever action is appropriate under the circumstances." Consent Decree ¶ 12(e). Within ninety days of the referral, the IBT entity to which the matter is referred must make written findings setting forth the specific action taken and the reasons for that action. Id.

The IRB monitors those matters it refers to the IBT. Id. at ¶ 12(f). The Consent Decree provides that the IRB determines "in its sole judgment" whether the matter has been pursued by the IBT in a "lawful, responsible, or timely manner" and whether the resolution proposed by the IBT is "inadequate under the circumstances." Id. If the IBT's action is inadequate, the IRB must give notice to the union of its determination and, within ten days of that notice, the union must advise the IRB in writing of the actions it will take to correct the defects identified by the IRB. Id. at ¶¶ 12(f) & (g). If the IRB concludes that the IBT's response is not satisfactory, the IRB must convene a hearing and issue its own decision in two circumstances: (1) if the IBT's handling of the matter referred by the IRB is determined by the IRB to be "inadequate;" or (2) if the union refers the matter back to the IRB for adjudication. Whenever the IRB itself conducts the hearing, the IRB's decision must be submitted to this Court for approval.

In addition to its specific authority to review the adequacy of disciplinary action taken by the union upon IRB-recommended charges, the IRB is also generally empowered to review any and all disciplinary and trusteeship decisions of the IBT. Consent Decree ¶ 12(k); IRB Rules ¶ M. The IBT is obligated to notify the IRB of its decisions, and the IRB has the authority to "affirm, modify, or reverse any such decision." Id. The IRB's 9 decision to affirm, modify or reverse a decision of the IBT is "final and binding." Id. When it exercises this authority, the IRB must submit its decision to the Court. IRB Rules ¶ M.

Whenever IBT disciplinary charges originate with the IRB, "the proper forum for plaintiffs' appeal of the union's decision [is] the IRB." Bastian v. Minnesota Teamsters Public & Law Enforcement Employee's Local 320, 98 Civ. 517 (LAP) & 98 Civ. 1137 (LAP), 2002 WL 424727, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. March 18, 2002). As the foregoing review of IRB procedures demonstrates, this Court will necessarily review IRB disciplinary decisions under two circumstances: (1) when the IRB itself holds a hearing and issues a decision; and (2) when the IRB reviews appeals from IBT members of union disciplinary decisions. This Court may also review IRB determinations that union discipline is "not adequate" when requested by the IRB. See, e.g., United States v. IBT ("Boggia"), 167 F.3d 113 (2d Cir. 1999). In each instance, judicial review is triggered when the IRB submits an application to this Court for approval of its decision.

II. The Instant Motions

With the above-described procedures forming the backdrop of this litigation, I now proceed to the determination on the instant motions before this Court.

To begin, it is clear that Sombrotto and Gonzalez have not pursued the challenge to their disciplinary actions through the channels prescribed by the Consent Decree. Whereas the Consent Decree envisions this Court's exercising its authority to review substantive decisions of the IRB, here the IRB has not yet rendered a decision on the substantive issues raised by Sombrotto and Gonzalez because they never appealed their expulsions to the IRB. Moreover, the Consent Decree authorizes the Government, the IBT and the IRB to make applications to this Court. However, individual IBT members, such as Sombrotto and Gonzalez, are not authorized to make those same applications. See United States v. IBT ("Feinstein"), 1993 WL 33605, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 29, 1993) ("Section K.16 of the Consent Decree vests the power to bring applications before the Court in a select group of entities"). Because Sombrotto and Gonzalez did not challenge their expulsions in a manner consistent with the Consent Decree, they cannot obtain judicial review in this Court merely by attempting to transform their current lawsuit into an application under the Consent Decree. See id. ("Permitting any one of the 1.5 million members in this Union to obtain action from this Court simply by making an application would effectively stymie efficient administration of the provisions of the Consent Decree."). Rather, they must pursue their challenge in the manner set forth by the Consent Decree.

As for whether Sombrotto and Gonzalez are still able, after the passage of many years since their expulsions, to seek relief through the process in the Consent Decree, the Government has expressed its belief that Sombrotto and Gonzalez have not forfeited their right to challenge their expulsions under the Consent Decree:

Nevertheless, we believe that the Consent Decree process, including the right to appeal to the IRB and the right thereafter to judicial review by this Court, remains fully available to Sombrotto and Gonzalez so long as they follow the appropriate procedures. . . . Although several years have elapsed since they were expelled, under these circumstances we do not believe that Sombrotto and Gonzalez have waived their right to proceed under the Consent Decree or should be precluded from presenting their appeal directly to the IRB in the first instance. . . . Accordingly, we do not believe that Sombrotto and Gonzalez should be precluded from submitting their appeal to the IRB at this stage. . . . We also do not believe that, if the IRB sustains the Union's discipline, Sombrotto and Gonzalez should be precluded from challenging the IRB's decision in this Court.
Govt. Ltr. at 7.

The IBT also does not oppose allowing Sombrotto and Gonzalez to pursue their LMRDA claims in the proper context (i.e., under the Consent Decree). See IBT Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and in Opposition to Plaintiff's Motion to Amend, dated Sept. 5, 2002, at 3-4. Accordingly, defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted, and plaintiffs' LMRDA complaint is dismissed without prejudice to 12 their right to raise their claims in accordance with the framework set out in the Consent Decree.

Dismissing plaintiffs' LMRDA complaint so that they can pursue their claims under the Consent Decree in United States v. IBT, 88 Civ. 4486 (LAP) obviates the need for plaintiffs to add the IRB as a party defendant in their action. Accordingly, that portion of plaintiffs' motion seeking to add the IRB as a party defendant is denied as moot. That portion of plaintiffs' motion seeking to file an amended complaint "to make clear that [the action] is being brought pursuant to United States v. IBT" is also denied as moot.

III. Schedule for Briefing Under the Consent Decree

As the Government notes, this Court's oversight of the Consent Decree includes the power to establish a reasonable schedule for the prompt resolution of Sombrotto and Gonzalez's claims. Accordingly, plaintiffs shall file their papers appealing General President Carey's decision imposing discipline, including expulsion, with the IRB within thirty days of the date thereof.


Defendants' motions for summary judgment (Docket Nos. 11, 15) are granted; plaintiffs' cross-motions are denied as moot.


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