Legal Memorandum: Exhaustion of Union Procedures Excused

Issue: Under federal law, in what circumstances may members of a union be excused from exhausting union procedures prior to filing suit in federal court?

Area of Law: Employee Law, Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Union grievance procedures; Exhaustion; Excused from requirements
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 379 U.S. 650; 976 F.2d 1185; 984 F.2d 732
Cited Statutes: § 301
Date: 02/01/2001

Where employees are seeking a remedy for their employer’s breach of the collective bargaining agreement and their union’s breach of its duty of fair representation, the general rule requires that they exhaust the grievance and arbitration procedures established by the collective bargaining agreement before maintaining a § 301 suit.  Republic Steel Corp. v. Maddox, 379 U.S. 650, 652-53 (1965). 

An employee usually must also exhaust internal union grievance and appeals procedures before maintaining a § 301 suit unless (1) union officials are so hostile that the employee could not possibly obtain a fair hearing; (2) the intra-union procedure would be inadequate either to award the full relief the employee seeks under § 301 or to reactivate the employee’s grievance; or (3) exhaustion of intra-union procedures would unreasonably delay the employee’s opportunity to obtain a judicial hearing on the merits of the claim.  Clayton v. Int’l Union, 451 U.S. 679, 689 (1981).  If any of these factors are found to exist, the court may properly excuse the employee group’s failure to exhaust.  Id. at 689.  Whether to excuse exhaustion is within the court’s discretion.  Id. The normal consequence of a holding that a plaintiff has failed to exhaust intra-union remedies is a dismissal without prejudice.  Seniority Research Group v. Chrysler Motor Corp., 976 F.2d 1185, 1189 (8th Cir. 1992). 

If the nature of the employees’ dispute concerns solely internal union matters, the exhaustion requirement may be even more difficult to avoid.  Courts have […]

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