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Catoggio v. Sheet Metal Workers International Association, AFL-CIO

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 14, 2018

STEVEN CATOGGIO, Plaintiff,
v.
SHEET METAL WORKERS INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION, LOCAL 25, AFL-CIO, et al, Defendants.

          OPINION

          JOSE L. LINARES JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court by way of Plaintiff Steven Catoggio's Motion to Remand this case to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Passaic County. (ECF No. 17). Defendant Alliance Industries, LLC ("Defendant Alliance") filed opposition, (ECF No. 20), but Defendant Sheet Metal Workers International Association, Local 25, AFL-CIO ("Defendant Union") did not file opposition in the time provided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Local Civil Rules, (see Docket Sheet). The Court decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiffs Motion to Remand.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 11, 2011, Plaintiff began working for Defendant Alliance as a truck driver. (ECF No. 1-1 ("Compl.") ¶ 6). Three weeks later, Defendant Alliance assigned Plaintiff extra duties, such as metal cutting, assembling equipment, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning duct work. (Compl. ¶ 7). Though this work required union membership and special training through an apprenticeship, Plaintiff was not a member of a union or apprenticeship program when he was first assigned these duties. (Compl. ¶ 7). Because Plaintiff excelled at the metal and ductwork he was assigned, the foreman at Defendant Alliance encouraged Plaintiff to apply for an apprenticeship program. (Compl. ¶ 8).

         Plaintiff was subsequently accepted into an apprenticeship program for sheet metal work, which gave him automatic membership to Defendant Union. (Compl. ¶¶ 8 9). To complete an apprenticeship, Plaintiff needed to perform eight six-month terms, equaling four years, as well as attend classes and take a written exam each term. (Compl. ¶ 10). At the conclusion of the apprenticeship, Plaintiff would become a journeyman. (Compl. ¶ 11). An apprentice's pay rate increases each year of the four-year apprenticeship from thirty-five to sixty-five percent a journeyman's salary. (Compl. ¶ 11). Any issues concerning apprentices were referred to Defendant Union's five-member Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee Board ("the JATC"). (Compl. ¶ 25).

         Plaintiff began his apprenticeship at Defendant Alliance on January 1, 2012. (Compl. ¶ 12). Shortly after his apprenticeship began, Plaintiff alleges that he witnessed several strange practices at Defendant Alliance. (Compl. ¶¶ 12-14). Specifically, Plaintiff allegedly noticed that newly hired truck drivers and other non-union employees were assigned duties that required union membership and were generally reserved for apprentices and journeymen. (Compl. ¶¶ 12-13). According to Plaintiff, Defendant Alliance also failed to follow the required procedure of reporting workplace accidents to Defendant Union, demeaned injured employees who sought workers' compensation benefits, and terminated employees who sought workers' compensation or who were suspected of leaking information regarding Defendant Alliance's assignment of union-required duties to non-union member employees. (Compl. ¶ 14).

         On August 5, 2015, a non-union worker was cleaning and securing the bucket of a bulldozer-a task that requires union membership-and failed to properly fasten the bucket, causing it to fall on Plaintiffs foot and severely injure him. (Compl. ¶ 15). Plaintiff was taken to the hospital, where he underwent reconstructive surgery, which was unsuccessful and Plaintiffs toes were amputated three weeks later. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-18). Plaintiff alleges that he "also sustained major fractures throughout his foot." (Compl. ¶ 17). Defendant Alliance did not report the accident, and neither did Plaintiff out of fear that Defendant Alliance would retaliate against him. (Compl. ¶19).

         Three weeks after the accident, Plaintiff contacted the president of the apprenticeship program, Mr. Turner, to inform him that Plaintiff could not attend the upcoming class. (Compl. ¶ 20). Mr. Turner told Plaintiff that he was not aware of Plaintiff s injury, which came as a surprise to Plaintiff. (Compl. ¶ 21). Mr. Turner and the business agent for Defendant Union then went to visit Plaintiff, and advised him to contact the workers' compensation attorney associated with Defendant Union. (Compl. ¶ 22). Plaintiff expressed doubts about contacting the workers' compensation attorney, and explained that other employees of Defendant Alliance were retaliated against for seeking workers' compensation benefits. (Compl. ¶ 22). Plaintiff also told the two men the details of his injury and how a non-union worker was performing duties connected to the bulldozer, in violation of the applicable rules and policies. (Compl. ¶ 23). Mr. Turner and the business agent assured Plaintiff that they would protect him, and Plaintiff retained Defendant Union's workers' compensation attorney. (Compl. ¶ 24). At some point thereafter, Plaintiff began receiving workers' compensation benefits. (See Compl. ¶ 28).

         In or around October 2015, the majority owner of Defendant Alliance, Mr. Williams, became one of the five board members of the JATC. (Compl. ¶ 25). Around that time, Mr. Williams contacted Plaintiff and informed him that Plaintiff had been cleared for "light duty," and that Mr. Williams wanted Plaintiff to come back to work. (Compl. ¶ 26). However, according to Plaintiff, an employee must be cleared for "full duty," not just "light duty," before returning to work. (Compl. ¶ 26). Furthermore, Plaintiff claims that he had not yet started physical therapy and that his injuries were not fully healed. (Compl. ¶ 27). Rather, Plaintiff participated in physical therapy between November 2015 and March 2016, and was not cleared to return to work on full duty until July 5, 2016. (Compl. ¶¶ 27, 40). Shortly after his October 2015 conversation with Mr. Williams, Plaintiff was contacted by Mr. Turner, who informed him that Mr. Williams was communicating with the union hall in an attempt to cancel Plaintiffs workers' compensation benefits. (Compl. ¶ 28).

         These events caused Plaintiff to fear that he would be retaliated against and possibly terminated upon his return to Defendant Alliance for filing a workers' compensation claim. (Compl. ¶ 29). Accordingly, Plaintiff met with the president of Defendant Union, Mr. Demark, on June 23, 2016, and requested that he be transferred to a different company once he was cleared to return to work. (Compl. ¶ 30). Mr. Demark informed Plaintiff that the JATC would have to authorize the transfer, at which time Plaintiff reminded Mr. Demark that Mr. Williams had joined the JATC and that there was a possible conflict of interest. (Compl. ¶ 31). Plaintiff was assured that Mr. Williams would not be involved in the decisionmaking process, but Plaintiff was never informed whether a vote took place or whether a decision was made. (Compl. ¶31).

         On July 22, 2016, Plaintiff received a letter from the JATC instructing him to contact the Members Assistance Program ("MAP"), which provided services to members of Defendant Union in connection with their finances and personal problems. (Compl. ¶ 32). Plaintiff was further instructed to contact MAP by July 29, 2016, but failed to do so because he was awaiting a decision regarding his transfer request before he took any further action. (Compl. ¶¶ 32-33). On August 17, 2016, the JATC sent Plaintiff another letter informing him that he failed to respond to its previous correspondence regarding MAP, and that Plaintiff was therefore terminated from the apprenticeship program and Defendant Alliance. (Compl. ¶¶ 34, 41). The letter also stated that Plaintiff could not reapply once he was terminated, which Plaintiff alleges is inaccurate as other members were allowed to reapply. (Compl. ¶ 35). According to Plaintiff, the JATC used his failure to respond as a pretext to terminate him, when in reality Plaintiff was terminated in retaliation for filing a claim of workers' compensation benefits and disclosing Defendant Alliance's allegedly improper policies and conduct. (Compl. ¶ 36). Plaintiff further claims that Defendant Alliance discriminated against him by firing him because of his disability, which was caused by his work-related injury. (Compl. ¶¶ 36, 46).

         Accordingly, on or around August 11, 2017, Plaintiff brought this action against Defendants in New Jersey Superior Court, Passaic County, seeking reinstatement as well as compensatory and punitive damages. (See generally Compl.). In his Complaint, Plaintiff asserts the following causes of action under New Jersey state law: (1) Workers' Compensation Discrimination in Violation of the New Jersey Workers' Compensation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:15-39.1 ("NJWCA"); (2) Disability Discrimination in Violation of New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A. 10:5-5(q) ("NJLAD"); (3) Failure to Provide Reasonable Accommodations in Violation of NJLAD and N.J.A.C. 13:13-2.5(b); (4) Retaliation in Violation of NJLAD, N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(d); (5) Violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 ("NJCEPA"); (6) Violation of Public Policy pursuant to Pierce v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 84 N.J. 58, 72 (1980) ("New Jersey Pierce claim"); and (7) Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress ("IIED"). (Compl. ¶¶ 37-85).

         On November 15, 2017, Defendants removed the case to this Court on the basis of the Court's federal jurisdiction, claiming that Plaintiffs causes of action are preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq. ("ERISA") and the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, 29 U.S.C. §§ 141, et seq. ("LMRA"). (ECF No. 1). After the case was removed, Defendant Alliance filed a motion to join the JATC as an indispensable party, which is currently pending. (ECF No. 15). Plaintiff now moves for remand. (ECF No. 17).

         II. ARGUMENTS ...


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