The Duty of Fair Representation ["DFR"] is a duty owed by a labor union to its members. The duty is breached when a labor union acts in a manner that is in bad faith, arbitrary, or discriminatory. It has one of the shortest statutes of limitations in all of law -- six months. If a lawsuit is not filed within that six month period, the protections otherwise available to an aggrieved union member may be lost forever. Because the Supreme Court has advised the lower courts that they are guardians" of unions' duty of fair representation, courts will, at least in theory, construe DFR complaints so as to avoid dismissals.
What Starts the Clock?
The limitations period is one thing, and the rule as to when a DFR cause of action accrues for purposes of the limitations period is quite another. The limitations period, as a general matter, is triggered when the plaintiffs knew or should have known of the breach of the DFR. The various circuits have recognized that a DFR claim may accrue significantly later in time than the union's underlying wrongdoing. The limitations period may sometimes not be triggered for long periods of time, partly because federal courts seek not to become entangled in abstract disagreements about matters that are not sufficiently mature for review and because the injury is merely speculative and may never occur. Courts in this Circuit have repeatedly held that a breach of the DFR by the union is apparent to the member at the time the union member learns of the union action or inaction that he or she is complaining about.
What Test to Apply
The limitations clock starts running when plaintiff first could have successfully maintained a lawsuit. Stated another way, a cause of action accrues for limitations purposes when it is "sufficiently ripe" that plaintiff may maintain a lawsuit. Sometimes, union members are caught between two bad options: commencing an action so early that the case may be dismissed as premature and speculative, or waiting and facing dismissal because of the bar of the statute of limitations. At least one court in this Circuit has held that even an unequivocal announcement by the union to advocate against its members' interests does not breach the DFR until it actually acts against its members' interests.
The Effect of Arbitration on the Limitations Period
Where the plaintiff is complaining about inadequate union representation during an arbitration proceeding, the statute of limitations starts running on the date of the final arbitration order and award. In such instances, only after an unfavorable arbitration decision does a plaintiff truly know that the union's conduct breached the Duty of Fair Representation. That is precisely because the union member is entitled, during the hearing process, to trust in his or her union representative and reasonably believe that the union is acting in good faith, at least until an adverse determination in arbitration suggests otherwise.
Missing the very short limitations period in a DFR action can mean that a union members' rights are forever lost. It is thus of great importance to avoid making assumptions about the accrual of the limitations period. If you believe that your labor union has breached its duty of fair representation to you, make sure that you consult an experienced federal labor law attorney immediately.