San Antonio Firefighter Loses DFR Claim Against Union

Employees suing their labor organizations for breach of duty of fair representation often learn that abbreviated statutes of limitation require the lawsuits to be filed in a short period of time. Such was the case with Joe Diaz, a paramedic with the City of San Antonio, Texas Fire Department.

In June 1999, Diaz was suspended while under a criminal investigation. The letter suspending Diaz informed him that he had ten days to appeal, but failed to inform him that under the City’s rules, his appeal had to include a statement of the basis for the appeal, a statement denying the truth of the charges as made, a statement taking exception to the legal sufficiency of the charge, and/or a statement that the recommended disciplinary penalty did not fit the offense.

Diaz spoke with his labor organization, the San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association, and filed his own appeal letter on June 23, 1999. Diaz’s appeal letter stated only that he had “been placed on indefinite suspension by the Department until a criminal investigation was concluded by the District Attorney’s office. This letter is to notify you of my intent to appeal their decision to take this course of action.”
At its next meeting, the San Antonio Fire Fighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission dismissed Diaz’s request for an appeal. The Commission ruled that Diaz’s notice of appeal failed to comply with the necessary procedural requirements. Diaz appealed the Commission’s decision, naming as defendants both the City and the Commission.

Approximately two years later, the Association stopped funding Diaz’s appeals. Diaz then filed suit in federal District Court against the City and the Association. In the lawsuit, Diaz alleged the City discharged him to prevent him from vesting in his retirement plan and deny him due process. He also argued that the Association breached its duty of fair representation, and that the City and the Association conspired to prevent him from vesting in his retirement plan. Early in the litigation, a court dismissed all of Diaz’s claims against the City, leaving the Association as the sole defendant. The case wound up in the Texas Court of Appeals.

The Court ruled that a claim for breach of duty of fair representation in Texas would be governed by the federal six-month statute of limitations. Diaz argued that he met the statute of limitations when he filed the suit against both the City and the Civil Service Commission, and that his subsequent duty of fair representation claim against the Association should “relate back” to the original filing of his lawsuit.

The Appeals Court rejected Diaz’s argument. The Court found that the “relation back” exception to a statute of

limitations applied only in very specific and technical situations, such as one where a plaintiff “merely misnames the correct defendant in a misnomer.” As the Court put it, “this is not a misnomer case. Diaz did not name the City as the defendant in an attempt to name the Association. He intended to name the City as the defendant and he did so. Accordingly, the relation back doctrine does not apply,” and Diaz’s duty of fair representation claim should be dismissed.

Diaz v. San Antonio Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 624, 2005 WL 2862075 (Tex.App. 2005).

NOTE: The Court’s decision failed to mention what could have been a critical issue. The City of San Antonio bargains under a local ordinance, not under federal law. It was by no means a pre-ordained conclusion that a Texas state court of appeals should apply a federal statute of limitations in a state case. Nonetheless, without analyzing the issue, the Court applied the abbreviated six-month federal statute of limitations.

This article appears in the December 2005 issue