A grievance process between an employer and an employee can often be a trap for the unwary. While they can provide an informal method of resolving issues that might otherwise require expensive and lengthy litigation, they can also empower an employer to defeat or reduce the value of meritorious claims by creating procedural hurdles and shortened statutes of limitations.
Another problem with some grievance procedures is that they do not all allow for a single grievance to cover multiple employees – known as “class” grievances. In the absence of language permitting class grievances, employers may claim that each individual with a dispute must bring his or her own individual grievance, notwithstanding the fact that multiple employees are affected by a single employer decision.
Although the doctrine of “exhaustion of administrative remedies” generally requires an employee to go through the grievance process before he or she is entitled to seek relief in court, there are exceptions to the doctrine which free an employee from having to go through the administrative grievance process. One such exception is where the process does not provide for an adequate remedy. (See Campbell v. Regents of Univ. of Cal. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 311, 322.)
In Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) v. County of Los Angeles (2019) 42 Cal.App.5th 918, a published opinion by the Second District Court of Appeal, RLS Partner Jacob Kalinski and I successfully argued that a grievance procedure that does not allow for class grievances is not an adequate remedy under the law. Consequently, a union litigating a dispute on behalf of its members need not show that each individual has exhausted the grievance process. In that case, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (“ALADS”) alleged that the County of Los Angeles had violated two “me too” clauses in its MOU by failing to provide increases granted to another County union. Initially, ALADS filed two grievances along with two of its board members, one for Deputy Sheriffs, the other for District Attorney Investigators. However, because the ALADS MOU did not expressly provide for class grievances and did not expressly allow ALADS to file a grievance in its own name, the County asserted that only individual relief for the two board members could be obtained under the filed grievances.
In response, RLS initiated two separate actions: a lawsuit was filed in Superior Court alleging breach of contract, and approximately 7,800 identical individual grievances were filed on behalf of each ALADS member, seeking to enforce the “me too” clauses. The County subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint in Superior Court, contending that ALADS could not circumvent the exhaustion requirement by filing suit until all 7,800 members had completed the grievance process, including arbitration, even though none of these arbitrations would have been binding. The trial court agreed with the County and dismissed the lawsuit.
RLS appealed, pointing out the absurdity of requiring 7,800 individual grievances that would all address the same issue, a process that would take approximately 21 years to resolve if the non-binding arbitration hearings which completed the grievance process were held every day. The Court of Appeal agreed, holding: “Without the County’s agreement to accept the result of any individual arbitration as binding on others, there could be no classwide resolution at the administrative level.” Moreover, case law “establish[es] that administrative relief is not adequate in a class or representative action if it does not apply to the class.”
This case presents a significant tool to fight back against grievance procedures requiring each affected employee to file individual grievances which exist only to limit the employer’s liability. Armed with the ALADS decision, if a union is faced with an employer who will not allow for meaningful grievance procedures designed to adequately address disputes affecting multiple employees, the union can let the employer know that this position will only result in such matters proceeding directly to Court. The case is also a great reminder to ensure that your association’s collective bargaining agreement allows for the association itself to file grievances on behalf of multiple employees.
About the author
Brian P. Ross is a senior associate with the firm’s Labor Litigation Group in southern California. Brian’s practice primarily involves writs of mandate, appellate litigation, and general labor and employment legal issues.