Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
Lynda Hickey worked for 17 years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service where the National Association of Letter Carriers was her collective-bargaining representative.
Hickey is deaf, but a cochlear implant in her left ear and a hearing aid in her right ear help her hear about one-third of the words spoken to her. Over the years, Hickey requested accommodations for her deafness and filed complaints when she didn’t receive them.
Hickey asserted her accommodation requests and complaints didn’t sit well with some of her colleagues and they allegedly manufactured a scuffle with her to get her fired. It worked, and Hickey approached the association to seek redress for disability discrimination. The association told Hickey she should file a union grievance but couldn’t file an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint until the grievance process concluded. But that was wrong, as Hickey learned when her attempt to pursue an EEOC complaint failed because she didn’t file it in time. So Hickey sued the association, alleging that its inaccurate advice constituted negligence under Colorado law.
The district court determined federal labor law preempted Hickey’s negligence claim and dismissed the suit.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed de novo the district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim. While doing so, it accepted the factual allegations in Hickey’s complaint as true and construed them in the light most favorable to her.
The association argued that both Section 301 of the National Labor Relations Act and the federal duty of fair representation preempted Hickey’s state-law negligence claim. The district court held Section 301 of the NLRA preempted Hickey’s negligence claim and didn’t address the duty of fair representation. But the 10th Circuit noted in its opinion it may affirm on any ground supported by the record — even if not the ground the district court relied on.
The 10th Circuit held the federal duty of fair representation preempted Hickey’s negligence claim. The circuit found that under federal labor law, unions have no duties to their members beyond fair representation unless they contractually create them. Because it ruled the association’s conduct fell under the duty of fair representation, and because the U.S. Supreme Court previously ruled the duty of fair representation applies to all union activity, the 10th Circuit affirmed the dismissal.