Officers’ Unsuccessful Appeal Bars Later Union Attempt To Arbitrate Discharge

The City of Rockford, Illinois Police Department fired Officer Steven Johnson for informing a friend that a felony bench warrant had been issued against him and that the police had been dispatched to arrest him. Johnson appealed his discharge to the state court system. When a trial court ruled against him and upheld his discharge, Johnson did not appeal.

Johnson’s labor organization, Unit 6 of the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois (PBPA), filed a grievance demanding arbitration and reinstatement of Johnson pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement. The City argued that the PBPA’s request for arbitration was barred by the principle of “res judicata.” The doctrine of res judicata provides that a final judgment on the merit rendered by one court is conclusive as to the rights of the parties, and constitutes an absolute bar to a subsequent action involving the same claim, demand, or cause of action.

The PBPA argued that in order for the doctrine of res judicata to apply, there had to be what is known as a “privity of interest” between it and Johnson. A non-party (such as the PBPA) can be bound by a separate court decision if its interests are so closely aligned to those of an actual party in the court proceeding that “the party is the virtual representative of the non-party.” The PBPA contended that a determination of a grievance claim would benefit all of its members, and that therefore, there was no privity interest between it and Johnson.

The Illinois Court of Appeals disagreed. The Court reasoned that “although the PBPA’s role is to improve conditions of employment for the collective group, in this case the PBPA’s grievance is specifically based on claims that Johnson should not have been discharged. This is the classic context in which a union is the proper representative of an individual who is no longer actively employed. We note also that federal courts have recognized that individual members of a labor union or another unincorporated association can be bound by judgments and suits brought by the union or association in its representative capacity.”

City of Rockford v. Unit 6 of the Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois, 2005 WL 3540823 (Ill.App. 2005).

This article appears in the February 2006 issue