A Superior Court awarded a former Westport highway department worker a judgment of more than $500,000 against his union, which refused to represent him after he alleged wrongful termination.
Our Massachusetts employment lawyers understand this case hinged on whether the town union brass showed bad faith in refusing to file a grievance after the truck driver was fired. In order to prove this, the employment attorney had to show that the termination had more to do with a personal dispute between the worker and the town manager than the license suspension on which it was pinned.
According to local news reports, though the case has been ongoing for more than five years, it took a New Bedford Superior Court jury just 2.5 hours to decide in favor of the plaintiff.
Court testimony revealed that in early 2007, the town manager fired the truck driver after the driver reportedly did not inform his bosses that his driver’s license had been suspended for his failure to pay a $35 ticket he received for a seat belt violation in Connecticut.
But the union refused to file a grievance against the town manager for a wrongful termination, despite its first loyalty to the employee. The former trucker decided to hire his own attorney to fight the termination.
He filed suit against the town directly – and he won. In the summer of 2008, a judge ordered the trucker be reinstated by the town. However, the town manager still refused to give him his old job back. Instead, he was allowed to continue working for the town as a custodian. It wasn’t until the following year that the town finally agreed to settle with him for $50,000. In exchange, he would drop his case against the town and resign.
The truck driver said he had little choice but to take the settlement. He had lost his health care benefits, his pension and the job he had held for decades. He was in dire financial straits, in danger of losing his home and his vehicle.
However, the fight wasn’t over. The union, his attorney argued, should have taken up the cause to represent the truck driver from the very start. Instead, it refused to fight back against the city manager’s actions.
The jury ultimately agreed the union violated its contract with the worker.
Union workers tend to have more protections against termination than non-union workers, and employers who fail to adhere to a current contract may find themselves in legal trouble. But that protection comes at a cost – for which the members pay regular and often substantial dues. If the union fails to hold up its end of the bargain by not representing its members, then it has committed a breach of contract as well.
Wrongful termination in Massachusetts, whether it occurs against union or non-union members, can be alleged in a number of scenarios. What’s important to understand is that under state law, all employees – unless they have a specific contract that is established either in writing or through oral agreement – are considered to be “At-Will” employees. What this means is that they can choose to quit whenever they want and conversely, an employer can choose to fire them whenever they want. However, state law does provide a few exceptions. These include:
- A violation of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. This generally means that an employer fired the worker in order to avoid paying a substantial commission or other form of compensation that they would normally be owed.
- The Public Policy Exception. This is very rare, but it’s intended to protect a worker from termination for things like being absent in order to serve on a jury.
- A breach of contract. If there is a contract (such as a union contract) that says an employee can only be fired for certain reasons, such as stealing or committing a crime or insubordination, the employer can be held liable if the worker is fired for reasons other than those stated.
- Discrimination. This is probably the most common kind of wrongful termination, and there are both state and federal laws that protect workers. Basically, you can’t be fired or given less favorable treatment solely because of your race, gender, age, national origin or disability.
Even in situations where your case may meet this criteria, you’re going to need a dedicated and experienced employment lawyer to help you prove it.