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Knight v. International Longshoremen's Association

August 14, 2006


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (D.C. No. 01-cv-00005) District Judge: Honorable Joseph J. Farnan, Jr.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sloviter, Circuit Judge.


Argued April 21, 2006

Before: SLOVITER, AMBRO, Circuit Judges, and DuBOIS*fn1 , District Judge


Congress enacted the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 ("LMRDA") following a two-year investigation into allegations of union wrongdoing by the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor Management Field. In introducing the LMRDA, Senator McClellan, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee, stated that the bill was "designed to provide effective remedies for some of the perversions of decent unionism and flagrant exploitations and abuses that have been exposed by more than 1,200 witnesses who have appeared and testified . . . ." 105 Cong. Rec. 6461, 6469 (1959).

Recognizing that if Congress "would give to the individual members of the unions the tools with which to do it, they would pretty well clean house themselves," id. at 6476, the LMRDA included a "Bill of Rights of Members of Labor Organizations," 29 U.S.C. § 411, whose guarantees include freedom of speech and assembly, the equal rights of all members to vote in union elections, and freedom from improper disciplinary action. These provisions were enacted at least in part, "to protect rank-and-file members of the union and to insure union democracy by protecting the independence of elected union officials . . . ." Ross v. Hotel Employees & Rest. Employees Int'l Union, 266 F.3d 236, 252 (3d Cir. 2001).

There is ample reference in the record in this case that Appellee, the International Longshoremen's Association ("ILA"), was one of the unions rife with abuse targeted by the LMRDA. A group called the Workers' Coalition was formed to address issues of concern within the ILA. As set forth in the Amended Pretrial Order:

The Workers['] Coalition is a caucus of ILA members and local officers whose stated mission is to "address issues of concern within the [ILA] whereby a forum can be created to foster and develop positive and new ideas, to improve and enhance the constitution, bylaws, and legislative procedures to educate every rank and file member; to create an environment whereby all concerns may be addressed and identified in a harmonious manner . . . ." The Workers['] Coalition has members in ILA locals in various Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports, including Wilmington, Delaware; Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Coalition is not an official organ of the ILA and is not approved by the International.

JA at 74.


The four plaintiffs in this case are ILA union members and members of the Workers' Coalition who sued the ILA for numerous violations of the LMRDA. Eddie Knight and Charles Miller-Bey (referred to at times in the record as "Miller") are both active members of ILA Local 1694. Knight was financial secretary of the union before the events at issue here. Eddie McBride, a member of ILA Local 1414 in Savannah, Georgia, is one of the national co-chairs of the Workers' Coalition. Leonard Riley, Jr., is a member of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina.

In early 2000, Knight made a motion at a meeting of Local 1694 to host a Workers' Coalition meeting and to have the Local contribute $1500 toward that purpose. The motion was carried. Knight distributed promotional materials for the meeting, which stated that members of the ILA were hosting a meeting of the Workers' Coalition. The promotional material came to the attention of Adam McBride, the Executive Director of the Diamond State Port Corporation, an employer of ILA members. Adam McBride (who is no relation to plaintiff Eddie McBride and to whom we refer by his full name to avoid confusion) had his employer give an unsolicited $500 contribution to Knight to help fund the meeting. The check was made payable to the hotel at which the meeting was to be held and was for the continental breakfasts. Adam McBride also agreed to speak at the meeting.

After being contacted by ILA Vice-President James Paylor, who told him the Workers' Coalition was not affiliated with the ILA,*fn2 Adam McBride decided not to speak at the ILA meeting, though he did not withdraw his financial support. Knight and Miller-Bey blamed Paylor for McBride's decision not to speak and, believing that Paylor had told McBride that the Coalition was being investigated for communist affiliation, brought intra-union charges accusing Paylor of interfering with the Local's autonomy and causing harm and division to the ILA.

In response, Paylor filed counter-charges against Miller-Bey and Knight, accusing them of filing frivolous charges that were detrimental to the welfare of the ILA in violation of Article XVIII of the ILA Constitution, and unauthorized use of the ILA name and logo in violation of Article XXVII of the ILA Constitution.

All of the charges and counter-charges were heard in August 2000 by a Committee convened pursuant to the ILA Constitution. Before the hearings plaintiffs requested specification of the charges against them, but that request was denied. In September, the Committee exonerated Paylor and Miller-Bey and recommended that the Executive Council of the union suspend Knight from his local office and fine him $500, the amount of the contribution made by the Diamond State Port Corporation, and that he be directed to repay that amount. In October, this recommendation was adopted by the ILA's Executive Council.

The Committee found that Adam McBride had been misled by Knight into believing that the Workers' Coalition was endorsed by the ILA. The Committee also found that Knight's acceptance of Adam McBride's donation violated § 302 of the Labor-Management Relations Act, which proscribes gifts from employers to employees who are union representatives. See 29 U.S.C. § 186. The Committee Report "notes that . . . the Worker's Coalition had no right to use the ILA logo or the Local 1964 in connection with the solicitation of funds to an employer of ILA labor in the port." JA at 394.

Several months after Knight was disciplined, plaintiffs initiated this lawsuit, claiming that the ILA violated various provisions of the LMRDA. In their complaint for injunctive relief and damages, plaintiffs asserted four claims: (1) that the ILA violated their rights to procedural safeguards in an internal disciplinary proceeding protected by §§ 101(a)(5) and 609 of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. § 411(a)(5),*fn3 by denying Knight and Miller-Bey sufficient notice and a reasonable time to prepare their defenses, refusing Knight permission to record the proceedings of the disciplinary hearing, forcing Knight to appear before a biased hearing committee, and finding that he had committed offenses of which there was no evidence; (2) that the ILA violated their right to free speech by retaliating against them for exercising that right as union members pursuant to §§ 101(a)(2) and 609 of the the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411(a)(2),*fn4 and 529,*fn5 when it brought charges against Knight and Miller Bey and fined Knight; (3) for interfering with their free speech rights through Article XXVII and XXVIII (conduct detrimental to the ILA) of the ILA Constitution; and (4) the ILA violated § 105 of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. § 415, by failing to adequately inform ILA members of the provisions of the LMRDA. The defendants raised various counter-claims which they later withdrew.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the ILA on all claims except the claim that the ILA had violated the LMRDA's due process provision, § 411(a)(5), by failing to give Knight time to develop a response to the charges, and whether the ILA fined Knight in violation of § 529 for exercising his right to speak freely. With regard to the other claims, the District Court found that Miller did not have standing to raise a due process claim against the ILA because he was not punished, and the ILA had not violated § 105 of the LMRDA. The District Court abstained from deciding whether Article XXVII of the ILA Constitution violated the LMRDA free speech provisions.*fn6

After a bench trial on the remaining claims, the District Court concluded that the ILA had given Knight and Miller-Bey time to respond to the charges and that the ILA had not fined Knight in violation of § 529, but rather because he improperly accepted funds from an employer, in violation of the ILA Constitution and § 302 of the Labor-Management Relations Act. Plaintiffs now appeal.*fn7

On appeal, plaintiffs contend that: (1) the District Court erred in abstaining from ruling on their claim that Article XXVII of the ILA Constitution is overbroad and thus violates their free speech rights; (2) the District Court erred in holding that the ILA had not violated the LMRDA's due process requirement by compelling Knight to appear before a biased hearing committee and by denying his request to tape-record the hearing; and (3) the District Court erred in finding that the ILA was in compliance with § 105 of the LMRDA, which requires that union members be made aware of the provisions of the LMRDA. We consider each of these claims in turn.


A. Free Speech Claim

This court has held that § 101(a)(2) of the LMRDA gives unions the right to provide reasonable rules in three situations: "(1) for conducting union meetings; (2) for insuring individual responsibility to the union as an institution; and (3) for preventing any interference with the union's performance of its legal or contractual obligations." Semancik v. United Mine Workers Union of Am. District #5, 466 F.2d 144, 153 (3d Cir. 1972). The union's ability to adopt reasonable rules is limited by 29 U.S.C. § 411(b), which provides that "[a]ny provision of the constitution and bylaws of any labor organization which is inconsistent with the provisions of this section shall be of no force or effect."

Article XXVII of the ILA Constitution, the article at issue here, provides:

Section 1. No individual member, local union, district council or any other affiliated group or individual may use the name "International Longshoreman's Association", or its abbreviation, "I.L.A.,", its emblem or trademark, for any advertising purposes whatsoever, without the written authority to do so from the International Executive officers.

Section 2. The Executive Council or the International Executive officers may grant to any local of district council . . . the authority to use the name "International Longshoremen's Association" or it abbreviation, "I.L.A.", its emblem or trademark, whenever such use is to be solely in connection with advertising and printing of programs for balls, or other social or civic affairs for the benefit of such local or district council, and only in the event that the funds derived in connection with the use of such name or emblem or trademark shall revert in full to the benefit of the local or district council to whom such privilege was granted.

Section 3. No member or group of members may use the name "International Longshoremen's Association", or its abbreviation, "I.L.A.," its emblem or trademark or a name, abbreviation, emblem or trademark calculated to simulate the name, abbreviation, emblem or trademark of the ILA in connection with any printing, publication or otherwise, unless authorized in writing by the International Executive officers.

JA at 112-13.

The District Court abstained from considering plaintiffs' claim that this provision violates the free speech rights of union members protected under § 101(a)(2) of the LMRDA. The Court, after referring generally to abstention under the Pullman doctrine,*fn8 gave as its basis for abstaining that "in the instant case, only one allegedly violative use of the ILA constitution is asserted. Further, it is unclear from the facts whether protected speech-related activity was punished and whether the Defendant's use of the provisions of its constitution is too broad." JA at 27. Thus, the District Court "conclude[d] there is insufficient evidence to warrant the Court's involvement in examining the general adequacy of the union's constitutional provisions . . . ." JA at 27.

We have stated that "'[a] district court has little or no discretion to abstain in a case that does not meet traditional abstention requirements . . . . Within these constraints, determination whether the exceptional circumstances required for abstention exist is left to the district court, and will be set aside on review only if the district court has abused its discretion.'" Univ. of Md. at Balt. v. Peat Marwick Main & Co., 923 F.2d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 1991) (quoting United Services Auto. Ass'n v. Muir, 792 F.2d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 1986)) (emphasis added). "An abuse of discretion occurs when a district court's decision rests upon a clearly erroneous finding of fact, an errant conclusion of law, or an improper application of law to fact."

P.N. v. Clementon Bd. of Educ., 442 F.3d 848, 852 (3d Cir. 2006) (quotation marks omitted), petition for cert. filed, 75 U.S.L.W. 3009 (U.S. June 29, 2006) (No. 06-7).

In choosing to abstain, the District Court purported to follow the language of this court's decision in Semancik. In that case, we stated,

[I]t might be appropriate for a federal court sitting in equity to give consideration to the LMRDA's wish to foster internal union self-government and to refuse to grant a permanent injunction based on the vagueness of Section 10. In those instances, the proper course might be to permit the union through its decisionmaking process to attempt to delineate and redefine a vague provision to bring it into conformity with the dictates of Section 101(a) (2). Such a discussion would be analogous to the abstention doctrine of Railroad Comm'n. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941).

466 F.2d at 154. Significantly, however, the Semancik court did not abstain but instead proceeded to evaluate the constitutionality of a provision in ...

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