The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of an employee’s claims that his union failed to fairly represent him and discriminated against him because of his race. In Hampton v. Bakery, Confectionary & Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union of America, Local 218, the plaintiff alleged race discrimination based on how the Union handled the grievance of his termination from employment. In particular, Hampton asserted claims for race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and that the Union violated its duty to fairly represent him.

Hampton had been employed by Frito-Lay in its receiving department. According to the Complaint, Hampton claims he was subjected to a racially hostile work environment created by a co-worker, Mr. Kistler. Following an incident of harassment, Hampton and Kistler got into an argument that, according to Kistler, ended with Hampton striking him. Hampton denied striking Kistler. Frito-Lay suspended Hampton pending an investigation and eventually terminated him under the company’s zero-tolerance workplace violence policy. Hampton grieved both the suspension and termination. During the pendency of the grievance and investigation, Frito-Lay offered Hampton a severance package, which would include access to his pension. Hampton rejected the offered severance agreement in order to pursue his grievance, and his termination was ultimately upheld. He then sued and settled separately with Frito-Lay.

During discovery, Hampton learned that during its investigation, Frito-Lay had taken statements from two co-workers who corroborated Kistler’s version of events. Frito-Lay had given the Union copies of the statements, but the Union did not inform Hampton of this or provide him with a copy. The Complaint also alleged that the Union did not advise him to agree to the severance.

Hampton then filed suit against the Union claiming that had he known about the two statements, which were likely devastating to his grievance, he would have signed the severance agreement. Similarly, he claimed the Union should have advised him to sign the agreement. He claimed that the Union’s alleged failures were racially discriminatory and violated the Union’s duty of fair representation.

42 U.S.C. § 1981 Claim

Section 1981 prohibits discriminatory interference with the right of a person to enter into and enforce contracts. A prima facie case requires a showing that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, the union intended to discriminate based on the protected class, and the alleged discrimination interfered with the right to enter into a contract. As the Supreme Court held in Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African-American Owned Media, the ultimate burden is on the plaintiff to show that race was “but-for” cause of the plaintiff’s injury. The District Court held that Hampton did not plausibly plead facts that would meet this stringent standard. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that conclusory allegations about the Union’s racial motivations were insufficient to state a claim under § 1981.

Hampton tried to save this claim by arguing that the timing of the Union’s failure to inform him of the co-workers’ statements gave rise to an inference of discrimination. In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination, the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework borrowed from Title VII applies. Both Courts agreed that this threadbare assertion of suspicious timing did not constitute indirect evidence of discrimination. Additionally, even if McDonnell-Douglas did apply, Hampton did not point to any facts demonstrating that the Union’s acts were racially motivated. Hampton tried to skip to step three of the analysis, pretext, by arguing that the Union never offered an explanation for the failure to inform him of the statements. However, because Hampton did not meet his initial burden of establishing a prima facie case, dismissal was appropriate.

Duty of Fair Representation Claim

Labor unions have a duty to represent all their members fairly in grievances and arbitration proceedings. A union breaches this duty when it acts in a “discriminatory, dishonest, arbitrary, or perfunctory” manner. In addition to proving a breach of a duty, the breach must affect the integrity of the grievance process, and the termination must also breach the collective bargaining agreement. Generally, a plaintiff will be arguing that the termination violated the “just cause” provision of the CBA. Here the basis for Hampton’s fair representation claim was the same as under his § 1981 claim.

Affirming dismissal, the Court of Appeals wrote that when alleging discriminatory treatment, the crucial inquiry in a fair representation claim is why the union took a particular action, and that reason must be discrimination based on racial prejudice or animus, or bad faith. Hampton only pleaded conclusory statements that the Union was motivated by race, but he did not assert any facts suggesting the union was motivated by racial animus of bad faith. The Court attributed the Union’s failure to negligence, at best, and a union does not breach its duty of fair representation by mere negligence in processing grievances.

Conclusion

The Court of Appeals affirmed once again that to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead facts showing that he or she is entitled to relief. Following the Supreme Court’s decisions in Twombly and Iqbal, mere conclusory statements or labels will not be sufficient to state a claim. In discrimination cases in particular, the District Court can, and should, do more than merely scan the complaint for the presence of the elements of a claim. Instead, the Court should scrutinize the factual allegations in the Complaint to determine whether a plaintiff has pleaded sufficient facts that raise an inference of discrimination.