Firefighter Must Follow Union’s Bylaws Before Filing Fair Representation Claim

Written on 03/17/2022
Will Aitchison

Augustine Eddy was a firefighter with the Pascoag Fire District in Rhode Island and was a member of Local 4908 of the International Association of Firefighters. In 2016, Eddy’s job performance was such that the District presented him with a plan for remedial training to address complaints from his partner regarding his job performance. Eddy was given three months to show improvement before the district would consider suspension.

Things only got worse. On March 27, 2016, Eddy and three coworkers were dispatched to transport a 37-year-old patient with paraplegia having trouble breathing. Eddy was the primary patient caregiver for the dispatch. During the transport, the patient lost consciousness and ultimately passed away at the hospital. Eddy was told that night that he was suspended, with pay, pending an investigation.

Eddy was eventually terminated based on his “conduct and performance during a rescue run on March 27, 2016” and his “continuing and ongoing inability to perform the functions of his position despite counseling and additional training.” Eddy filed a grievance challenging his termination.

When the grievance was denied by the District at all preliminary steps of the grievance procedure, Local 4908’s executive board notified Eddy that it would not seek arbitration because “Eddy’s termination had merit.” Local 4908’s president later testified that Local 4908 “could not afford going to arbitration” for Eddy.

According to Eddy, however, one day before the deadline to submit the matter to arbitration, Local 4908 informed Eddy that it would proceed to arbitration if Eddy retained an attorney at his own expense. Eddy claimed that he was unable to retain an attorney to handle the arbitration so the deadline passed without Local 4908 filing for arbitration. He made no attempt to process the grievance himself, then sued Local 4908, claiming a breach of the duty of fair representation.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court rejected Eddy’s claim. The Court observed that “Eddy contends that he was estopped from exhausting his administrative remedies because Local 4908 required him to bear the entire cost of arbitration, with one day’s notice. Eddy stated in his February 12, 2019 affidavit in support of his objection to the district’s motion for summary judgment that, ‘because of the timing of this notification, I was unable to retain an attorney to handle the arbitration so the deadline passed without Local 4908 filing for arbitration.’

“We note that the referenced ‘deadline’ simply required, under Article 12, Section 3 of the CBA, that Eddy notify the Chief in writing of his desire to proceed further with the grievance. Although Eddy claims that the deadline passed because he was unable to retain an attorney, we fail to see how Local 4908’s ‘condition’ prevented Eddy from expressing, on his own behalf, his desire to proceed with the grievance; that was all that was required by Eddy in that time frame under the CBA.

“Under Local 4908’s constitution and bylaws, Eddy had the ability to appeal Local 4908’s decision not to pay for arbitration to Local 4908’s general president, but he failed to do so. There is no evidence to suggest that Local 4908 prevented him from appealing under Local 4908 bylaws. Therefore, Eddy fails to establish that Local 4908 induced him to fail to act.”

Eddy v. Pascoag Fire Dist., 2022 WL 175896 (R.I. 2022).

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