Philip Buff is a retired firefighter who worked for the Village of Manlius, New York. Buff sued the Village, seeking an order compelling to pay 80% of Buff’s health insurance plan premiums. Buff alleged that the Village paid that percentage when he was employed, pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement between the Village and the union representing Village firefighters.
A trial court dismissed Buff’s complaint on technical grounds, holding that the grievance procedure provided for in the CBA was the exclusive procedure by which Buff could seek to press his claims. Buff then appealed the dismissal of his lawsuit.
An appeals court reinstated Buff’s lawsuit. The Court noted that “it is well settled that, when an employer and a union enter into a collective bargaining agreement that creates a grievance procedure, an employee subject to the agreement may not sue the employer directly for breach of that agreement but must proceed, through the union, in accordance with the contract. There are, however, two exceptions to that rule. The first exception applies when the contract provides otherwise, i.e., the contract either expressly allows such suits or implicitly does so by excluding the dispute at issue from, or not covering it within, the ambit of the contractual dispute resolution procedures. The second exception applies when the union fails in its duty of fair representation.
“Here, the CBA only allows the union or a ‘member’ to file a grievance. Elsewhere in the CBA, the word member is used interchangeably with the word employee, and several CBA provisions that apply to members, such as provisions for holiday pay and annual physicals, clearly affect only active employees. In addition, the CBA provides that the Village recognizes the union as the exclusive representative for collective negotiations with respect to salaries, wages, and other terms and conditions of employment of all full-time and part-time employees.
“Giving the word ‘member’ its plain meaning, and interpreting the contract as a whole, we agree with Buff that the word member means a member of the union. It is undisputed that Buff ceased to be a member of the union after his retirement. Thus, according to the clear and unambiguous terms of the CBA, Buff could not file a grievance, and can bring a lawsuit.”
Buff v. Village of Manlius, 115 A.D.3d 1156 (A.D. 2014).