Unions can only Waive their Members' right to file Suit against their Employer if the Waiver is Clear and Umistakable

posted by Neil E. Klingshirn | January 19, 2023 in Employment Law

Believe it or not, a union can waive its members’ right to take their employer to court for violating the members' civil rights. Employee rights advocates, like Protecting Ohio’s Employees and the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association, oppose this practice. Nonetheless, some unions will agree to waive their members’ rights to jury trials in exchange for wages or other concessions. When they do, a mere majority of the union can ratify the waiver over the objections of the minority.

To protect the rights of the minority from abuse, courts require these waivers to be clear and unmistakable. The case of Sinley vs. Superior Dairy illustrates how employers can abuse union waivers, and how courts protect employees from such abuse.

An Ungaurded and Powered Grinder Injured Mr. Sinley

According to his complaint, on May 11, 2019, Mr. Sinley answered a work order to repair an industrial Grinder at Superior Dairy. Normally, Grinders have an electronic shutoff guard that cuts off power when they are disassembled. However, the Company had removed the power shutoff guard on this Grinder. Worse, the Company did not lock out power to the Grinder before Mr. Sinley repaired it.  This left the Grinder powered and unguarded.

Mr. Sinley alleged that his Supervisor knew but did not tell Mr. Sinley that the Grinder had power on that day. He did not warn Mr. Sinley that the emergency shutoff guard was gone. Unaware of his peril, Mr. Sinley went to work on the Grinder, placing his hands inside it. The Supervisor unexpectedly reset the Grinder, which activated and ground off four of Mr. Sinley’s fingers on his dominant right hand.

Mr. Sinley Sought Compensation in Court

Mr. Sinley filed suit for an “employer intentional tort” in Common Pleas Court. Superior Dairy asked the Court to block his suit, contending that the Union agreed in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that its members could not bring their employment claims in court.

The CBA did not, however, describe or mention an employer intentional tort. The trial court therefore denied Superior Dairy’s attempt to block Mr. Sinley from filing suit in court.

Superior Dairy appealed to the appellate court, which agreed with the trial court. Superior Dairy then appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. On November 23, 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Sinley that the union had not waived his right to bring his case in court.

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Mr. Sinley’s right to trial

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld Mr. Sinley’s right to trial because it found that:

  1. The Company was not entitled to a presumption of arbitrability of an individual employee’s claims under an arbitration clause in a collective-bargaining agreement,
  2. Any such waiver must be “clear and unmistakable”
  3. Clear and unmistakable requires a specific reference to the claim at issue that identifies the claim either by statute or cause of action, and
  4. Because Superior Dairy’s CBA made no mention whatsoever to intentional-tort claims, the CBA did not waive Sinley’s right to go to court.

Michael Elliott represented Mr. Sinley in this case. Employment Law Partners Neil Klingshirn and Christina Royer wrote “Friend of the Court” briefs in support of Mr. Sinley in the Appellate and Ohio Supreme Courts.

The most important takeaway from this case is not that the company failed in its attempt to deny Mr. Sinley access to court. Rather, it is that employers have the ability to deny any employee their day in court at all. Moreover, unions should not bargain away the Members civil rights. Those that do should be held to account. We urge union members to be vigilant during contract negotiations against any employer attempt to insulate themselves from suit, and demand that their unions reject such attempts.

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