Fire Union Liable For $200K In Fair Representation Case

When the Stamford, Connecticut Firefighters Association refused to process to arbitration a grievance challenging the termination of firefighter Donald Berg, Berg filed a complaint with the Connecticut Board of Labor Relations. The Board found that not only had Berg’s employer, the Long Ridge Fire Company, discharged him without just cause, but also found that the Association breached its duty of fair representation to Berg by refusing to arbitrate his grievance.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the case involved what happened next. The Board ordered the Company to reinstate Berg. The Board also found that the Company and the Association should each pay to Berg “one-half of the amount required to make him whole for all losses he incurred as a result of the Union’s and the Fire Company’s actions.”

The Association then contested whether it should be liable for half of Berg’s back pay. The amount of back pay was huge, as Berg would have earned $730,379 from 2008, when he was terminated, through 2014, when he reached a settlement with the Company that waived his rights to reinstatement. As Berg had interim earnings of $343,645, the question was whether the Association should be liable for half the difference, or $206,266.

The Association first argued that it would suffer a financial catastrophe were it required to pay Berg $206,266. The Board quickly rejected the argument, noting that “we have previously rejected financial hardship as a defense to non-compliance with an order and we see no reason to draw a contrary conclusion here.”

The Association next argued that the allocation of damages should be governed by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967), where the Court found that in duty of fair representation cases liability should be apportioned “between the employer and the union according to the damage caused by the fault of each.” The Association contended that its liability should be limited to the period between when Berg was discharged and when he filed his complaint with the Board, and that the Company should be wholly responsible for any back pay Berg was owed after he filed his complaint.

The Board was unpersuaded. The Board found that there was an “intertwined relationship between the Association and the Fire Company that justified an even division of the economic damages.” In particular, the Board found that “the Union’s decision not to take the case to arbitration was motivated by hostility and ill will toward Berg and was, therefore, in bad faith. Berg’s case on the merits was rife with disputed facts and credibility issues.” The Board ordered the Association to pay Berg $206,266.

In re Stamford Career Firefighters Association, 2017 WL 1282324 (Conn. Dept. Lab. 2017).