Brian Sanford of Dallas' The Sanford Firm.
Brian Sanford of Dallas’ The Sanford Firm. (Courtesy photo)

Labor unions usually take on the role of defending a worker’s legal rights if their employer decides to terminate them while on sick leave. But Dallas lawyer Brian Sanford took on that job for a worker and ended up beating the union that fired him before a Texas appellate court.

“Normally the unions are fighting for the rights and benefits for employees, not against them,” said Sanford of The Sanford Firm of his recent victory that gives Donald Videtich, a former transportation union director, the right to sue the union. “It is weird because my client is a union man through and through. That’s where his heart is.”

The background to the Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals decision in Videtich v. Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, was as follows, according to the opinion:

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) is a national transportation labor organization that employed Videtich as its deputy director of its air transport division. In 2012, TWU revised its disability policy to include the provision that “an employee on sick leave or disability will continue to be an employee of TWU . . . for 12 consecutive months from the last day worked prior to commencing the leave.”

The disability policy also included the statement that “an employee receiving TWU-paid leave under this policy will no longer be eligible to receive such paid leave if for any reason he/she ceases to be an employee of TWU.”

In 2013, Videtich had surgery on his knee and was later diagnosed with necrosis and nerve damage. According to Videtich, he took sick leave in August 2013 and he began receiving short-term disability payments from the TWU in October 2013.

TWU terminated Videtich in November 2013. Videtich’s attorney sent a demand letter to TWU’s general counsel asserting Videtich’s rights to short-term disability payments. The union refused to resume the benefit payments and determined that Videtich was not eligible for them because he’d been terminated, he was not on sick leave when he was dismissed and that the disability policy did not prevent TWU from terminating an employee.

Videtich sued TWU in a state district court alleging breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty among other claims. TWU filed a summary judgment motion alleging the lawsuit should be dismissed on several grounds — a motion the trial judge granted without specifying on which grounds he was dismissing the case.

Videtich appealed that decision to the Fifth Court, addressing all five reasons TWU contended it could not be sued and why they should be rejected. They included the contention that Videtich’s employment terms were at-will and the disability policy did not alter that relationship, that he was not eligible for benefits, the disability policy did not guarantee benefits once employment ceased, that his employment contract was bound by a final decision by the union’s board and that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies before filing sued.

And in his Dec. 29th decision, Fifth Court Justice David Schenck indeed rejected all five of the TWU’s grounds for summary judgment, remanding the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Most significantly, Schenck found there was a fact question as to whether Videtich was an at-will employee, meaning he could be terminated for any reason and without just cause. And Schenck noted that the language of TWU’s disability policy “appears to fall somewhere between a nonguarantee and entitlement” of employment benefits.

“In view of the patent ambiguity of the disability policy and the lack of any explicit disclaimer, we conclude a fact question exists concerning whether the disability policy expressly modified the employment-at-will relationship,” Schenck wrote.

Beating the union on the at-will question at the appellate court was significant, as Texas employers often use the doctrine to defeat their former employees in labor disputes on summary judgment, Sanford said.

“When I first started practicing law and people came into my office I had to explain what at-will means. Now they come in, everybody knows. It’s just became the mantra,” Sanford said.

“Now a jury gets to decide if he was an at-will employee, if he was disabled and if he had to exhaust his appeal with the union,” Sanford said. “We think of it as a success, a great victory. I think the court was thoughtful and made a detailed analysis of each of the issues.”

Dale M. Rodriguez, a Plano solo practitioner who represents the TWU, did not return a call for comment.

Labor unions usually take on the role of defending a worker’s legal rights if their employer decides to terminate them while on sick leave. But Dallas lawyer Brian Sanford took on that job for a worker and ended up beating the union that fired him before a Texas appellate court.

“Normally the unions are fighting for the rights and benefits for employees, not against them,” said Sanford of The Sanford Firm of his recent victory that gives Donald Videtich, a former transportation union director, the right to sue the union. “It is weird because my client is a union man through and through. That’s where his heart is.”

The background to the Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals decision in Videtich v. Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, was as follows, according to the opinion:

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) is a national transportation labor organization that employed Videtich as its deputy director of its air transport division. In 2012, TWU revised its disability policy to include the provision that “an employee on sick leave or disability will continue to be an employee of TWU . . . for 12 consecutive months from the last day worked prior to commencing the leave.”

The disability policy also included the statement that “an employee receiving TWU-paid leave under this policy will no longer be eligible to receive such paid leave if for any reason he/she ceases to be an employee of TWU.”

In 2013, Videtich had surgery on his knee and was later diagnosed with necrosis and nerve damage. According to Videtich, he took sick leave in August 2013 and he began receiving short-term disability payments from the TWU in October 2013.

TWU terminated Videtich in November 2013. Videtich’s attorney sent a demand letter to TWU’s general counsel asserting Videtich’s rights to short-term disability payments. The union refused to resume the benefit payments and determined that Videtich was not eligible for them because he’d been terminated, he was not on sick leave when he was dismissed and that the disability policy did not prevent TWU from terminating an employee.

Videtich sued TWU in a state district court alleging breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty among other claims. TWU filed a summary judgment motion alleging the lawsuit should be dismissed on several grounds — a motion the trial judge granted without specifying on which grounds he was dismissing the case.

Videtich appealed that decision to the Fifth Court, addressing all five reasons TWU contended it could not be sued and why they should be rejected. They included the contention that Videtich’s employment terms were at-will and the disability policy did not alter that relationship, that he was not eligible for benefits, the disability policy did not guarantee benefits once employment ceased, that his employment contract was bound by a final decision by the union’s board and that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies before filing sued.

And in his Dec. 29th decision, Fifth Court Justice David Schenck indeed rejected all five of the TWU’s grounds for summary judgment, remanding the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Most significantly, Schenck found there was a fact question as to whether Videtich was an at-will employee, meaning he could be terminated for any reason and without just cause. And Schenck noted that the language of TWU’s disability policy “appears to fall somewhere between a nonguarantee and entitlement” of employment benefits.

“In view of the patent ambiguity of the disability policy and the lack of any explicit disclaimer, we conclude a fact question exists concerning whether the disability policy expressly modified the employment-at-will relationship,” Schenck wrote.

Beating the union on the at-will question at the appellate court was significant, as Texas employers often use the doctrine to defeat their former employees in labor disputes on summary judgment, Sanford said.

“When I first started practicing law and people came into my office I had to explain what at-will means. Now they come in, everybody knows. It’s just became the mantra,” Sanford said.

“Now a jury gets to decide if he was an at-will employee, if he was disabled and if he had to exhaust his appeal with the union,” Sanford said. “We think of it as a success, a great victory. I think the court was thoughtful and made a detailed analysis of each of the issues.”

Dale M. Rodriguez, a Plano solo practitioner who represents the TWU, did not return a call for comment.