On July 2, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided United Steel v. E.I. Dupont de Nemours and Company, No. 08-1911. In two consolidated cases, Plaintiffs are unions who were seeking to compel Defendants, employers of the unions’ members, to arbitrate Plaintiffs’ grievances about unilateral changes the Defendants made to employee benefit plans. In both cases, the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the unions on the grounds that: (1) a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the parties provided for arbitration; and (2) there is no strong and forceful evidence that the parties intended to exclude these disputes from arbitration. 

In appealing the lower courts’ determinations, Defendants contended that the Plaintiff’s grievances are disputes over benefit eligibility and, thus, should be resolved using the dispute resolution provisions of the Summary Plan Description rather than the CBA. Moreover, Defendants argued that ERISA, which governs the employee benefit plans maintained by Defendants, mandates that benefit eligibility disputes of this nature should be resolved by the designated ERISA fiduciary.

In affirming the determination of the lower courts, the Third Circuit noted that the arbitration clauses in the CBAs at issue were broadly worded. Specifically, the New Jersey CBAs provide for arbitration of grievances “relating to the interpretation or to any alleged violation” of those CBAs, while the Delaware CBA provides for arbitration of “[a]ny question as to the interpretation, or any alleged violation, of any provision of” that CBA. There was no express provision in any of the CBAs that excluded Plaintiffs’ grievances. Therefore, a presumption of arbitrability applied and Defendants could only overcome this presumption by showing forceful evidence of a purpose to exclude these claims from arbitration.

The Court determined that there was no forceful evidence that the parties did not intend to submit these disputes to arbitration. In rejecting Defendants’ argument which characterized the grievances as disputes about “benefit eligibility”, the Court found the disputed issue is not whether any particular employee was eligible under the terms of the plan, but rather whether Defendants violated the CBAs by unilaterally modifying its terms. Moreover, the Court noted that were it to accept Defendants’ characterization of the grievances, this would eliminate any opportunity for a meaningful challenge to Defendants’ unilateral plan amendments and thereby thwarting the CBAs’ arbitration clauses. As such, the Court affirmed the determination of the lower courts.

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Donald C. Barbati Donald C. Barbati

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues…

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues litigated before the courts and administrative tribunals throughout the State of New Jersey. In addition, Mr. Barbati also routinely represents individuals in various types of public pension appeals, real estate transactions, and general litigation matters. He is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Public Safety Officers Law Blog, a free legal publication designed to keep New Jersey public safety officers up-to-date and informed about legal issues pertinent to their profession. During his years of practice, Mr. Barbati has established a reputation for achieving favorable results for his clients in a cost-efficient manner.

Mr. Barbati has also handled numerous novel legal issues while representing New Jersey Public Safety Officers. Most notably, he served as lead counsel for the Appellants in the published case In re Rodriguez, 423 N.J. Super. 440 (App. Div. 2011). In that case, Mr. Barbati successfully argued on behalf of the Appellants, thereby overturning the Attorney General’s denial of counsel to two prison guards in a civil rights suit arising from an inmate assault. In the process, the Court clarified the standard to be utilized by the Attorney General in assessing whether a public employee is entitled to legal representation and mandated that reliance must be placed on up-to-date information.

Prior to becoming a practicing attorney, Mr. Barbati served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Linda R. Feinberg, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer Vicinage. During his clerkship Mr. Barbati handled numerous complex and novel substantive and procedural issues arising from complaints in lieu of prerogative writs, orders to show cause, and motion practice. These include appeals from decisions by planning and zoning boards and local government bodies, bidding challenges under the Local Public Contract Law, Open Public Records Act requests, the taking of private property under the eminent domain statute, and election law disputes. In addition, Mr. Barbati, as a certified mediator, mediated many small claims disputes in the Special Civil Part.

Mr. Barbati received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, magna cum laude, from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Upon graduating, Mr. Barbati attended Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. In 2007, he received his juris doctorate, magna cum laude, graduating in the top five percent of his class. During law school, Mr. Barbati interned for the Honorable Joseph E. Irenas, Senior United States District Court Judge for the District of New Jersey in Camden, New Jersey, assisting on various constitutional, employment, and Third Circuit Court of Appeals litigation, including numerous civil rights, social security, and immigration cases.

One Response to Unions’ Grievances Regarding Employer’s Change in Benefit Plans Subject to Arbitration

I read this article two times but I am sorry, I cannot understand English lawyer talk. There are a lot of blogs that deal with legal issues, but somehow I got friends with them :) I was curious to know if unions always win in America, as they do back in Romania, where I am writing from. I just had a training on the negotiation between employees and employers and the consultant who trained us said that the cases when the workers don’t win are extremely rare. The law helps them a lot here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *