The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently decided the case of Darrington v. Milton Hershey School, a case which provides clear guidance for public employers in drafting certain sections of collective bargaining agreements with their employees.

In the Darrington case, Bradley and Val Darrington, a husband and wife, brought a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against their former employer, the Milton Hershey School, alleging claims of employment discrimination and retaliation against the school.  The Darringtons claimed that the Milton Hershey School’s mandatory religious education programming discriminated against them on the basis of their religion.  Importantly, during their employment with the Milton Hershey School, the Darringtons were members of a labor association which was a party to a collective bargaining agreement with the Milton Hershey School.

Subsequently, the Milton Hershey School moved to compel the Darrington’s claims to be heard via arbitration.  The school claimed that the Darringtons were bound by the language of the aforementioned collective bargaining agreement, specifically highlighting the following language from the collective bargaining agreement in support of its position:

  • The collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration provision covers “any dispute arising out of its terms and conditions, including the discipline or discharge of Union members.”
  • A grievance includes “any dispute alleging discrimination against any [Union members] based upon membership in any protected categories under federal or state law and/or as set forth in Section 10.1 of [the CBA].”
  • “The Union and [MHS] will not discriminate against employees or applicants on the basis of race, color, religion, age (40 and above), sex, national origin, disability status, and membership or non-membership in the Union.”
  • “That the Union, on behalf of itself and the allegedly aggrieved [Union members], waives, releases, and discharges any right to institute or maintain any private lawsuit alleging employment discrimination in any state or federal court regarding the matters encompassed within this grievance procedure.”
  • The CBA “sets forth the exclusive procedure for resolution of disputes arising out of the terms and conditions of [the CBA] or the discipline or discharge of” a Union member.

Based on the aforementioned contractual language, the Third Circuit held that arbitration was the appropriate forum for adjudication of the Darringtons’ claims.  The Third Circuit Court found that “[a] collective bargaining agreement can waive a judicial forum for union members’ statutory claims only if the waiver is clear and unmistakable” and if the “merits-based dispute in question falls within the scope of that valid agreement.”  A dispute “falls within the scope of a collective bargaining agreement’s arbitration provision when (1) the arbitration provision clearly and unmistakably waives the employee’s ability to vindicate his or her federal statutory right in court; and (2) the federal statute does not exclude arbitration as an appropriate forum.”

The Court further held that a clear and unmistakable waiver occurs “when a collective bargaining agreement, interpreted according to applicable contract-interpretation principles, clearly and unmistakably waives a judicial forum for statutory claims.”  The union representing the Darringtons waived the right to have discrimination claims heard in the courts where they agreed to such language as ““the Union, on behalf of itself and the allegedly aggrieved [Union members], waive[d] … any right to institute or maintain any private lawsuit alleging employment discrimination in any state or federal court regarding the matters encompassed within this grievance procedure.” (Emphasis in opinion). Further, the Court noted that “[t]he grievance procedure encompassed “any dispute alleging discrimination” by MHS against Union members “based upon membership in any protected categories under federal or state law and/or as set forth in Section 10.1 of [the CBA].” (Emphasis in opinion).  The Court concluded that “the CBA’s arbitration provision is broad, but it is also clear and unmistakable.”

For practical purposes, the Darrington decision provides employers who are parties to collective bargaining agreements with their employees with clear examples of the type of language to use when negotiating arbitration clauses into contracts.  Due to the less formal nature of arbitration and the associated cost savings accompanying it, it is highly advantageous for employers to have all disputes related to matters traditionally heard in state and federal courts, such as discrimination claims, moved to arbitration.  Our public sector attorneys can assist you in drafting favorable language in all of your collective bargaining agreements.

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