Today, the U.S. Supreme Court held that provisions in collective bargaining agreements that clearly and unmistakably require union members to submit statutory discrimination claims to the grievance and dispute resolution provisions of the agreement are binding and enforceable. 

In 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett ,  a dispute arose over a commercial office building’s reassignment of night watchmen employees (whose duties were outsourced) to less desirable positions such as light duty cleaners and porters.  The reassigned employees, members of the Service Employee International Union, Local 32BJ, filed a grievance with the union contending that the reassignments violated, among other things, the CBA’s ban on age discrimination.  When the grievances were unsuccessful, the Union requested arbitration under the dispute resolution procedures of the CBA.  The union later withdrew the grievances to the extent they complained about age discrimination prohibited by the contract but continued to press for arbitration on the remaining claims.

The disgruntled reassigned employees then filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC over their reassignment claiming the reassignments were discriminatory.   After the EEOC issued a right to sue letter and the employees sued in federal district court, the defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration relying on the language of the grievance and dispute resolution procedures of the CBA with the union that stated:

§ 30 NO DISCRIMINATION. There shall be no discrimination against any present or future employee by reason of race, creed, color, age, disability, national origin, sex, union membership, or any other characteristic protected by law, including, but not limited to, claims made pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the New York State Human Rights Law, the New York City Human Rights Code, . . . or any other similar laws, rules, or regulations. All such claims shall be subject to the grievance and arbitration procedures (Articles V and VI) as the sole and exclusive remedy for violations. Arbitrators shall apply appropriate law in rendering decisions based upon claims of discrimination.

The trial court and Second Circuit Court of Appeal refused to compel arbitration holding that a CBA could not waive the bargaining unit members’ right to a judicial forum over statutory civil rights claims created by Congress.

The Supreme Court reversed holding that where the intent to submit statutory discrimination claims to the grievance and dispute resolution procedures of the CBA is clear and unmistakable (an issue that was not in dispute before the court –i.e., the parties agreed that the language was sufficiently explicit) nothing precluded the union’s ability to waive its members right to a judicial forum to resolve those discrimination claims.  A majority of the Court rejected the employee’s argument that the union was waiving important, substantive rights to be free from age discrimination. 

The Court noted that the union had not waived (nor could it) the employee’s right to be free from and to challenge employment actions that were based on unlawful motivations such as age discrimination.  Rather, the Court observed, the Union had merely negotiated for and agreed that such claims would be resolved in a forum other than a judicial one –i.e., arbitration.  Consequently, the Court held that to the extent the employees were to litigate their statutory age discrimination claims they would have to do so within the confines of the grievance and dispute resolution procedures of the CBA.

As a consequence of this ruling it is unlikely that unions will agree in future negotiations that their grievance and arbitration procedures include employment discrimination and civil rights claims.  Placing the unions in the position of using limited resources to arbitrate otherwise individual claims is unlikely to be something that benefits the majority of the bargaining unit members.  This potential conflict of interest is something most unions would prefer to avoid. 

Other commentators have suggested, and I agree, that the holding of this case is likely to be limited because Congress may seek to overturn it as it did with the Court’s Ledbetter decision.  See Jottings by an Employer’s Lawyer and The Delaware Employment Law Blog

Another potential consequence is that the existence of a mandatory arbitration provision in a CBA covering employment discrimination claims may be an important factor the EEOC considers in deciding whether to litigate over a particular charge of discrimination.  Under the current law the EEOC is not be bound by the grievance and arbitration provisions in CBA’s (nor individual employment contracts between employees and employers) and it could vindicate an employee’s rights in a federal judicial forum notwithstanding the CBA.

Until legislation is passed to overturn 14 Penn Plaza, employers and unions with CBAs that clearly and unmistakably include employment discrimination and civil rights claims in the grievance and dispute resolution provisions will now be forced to resolve those disputes in an arbitral forum.