An arbitrator handling a dispute between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the Democratic National Committee and several broadcast networks did not have the authority to determine whether that case could in fact be arbitrated, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted motions to dismiss, and in doing so, held that the court had jurisdiction to decide the arbitrability of the case.
The matter stems from the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, and an agreement between the union and the DNC that union electricians would handle any work that needed to be done. The networks, which were not involved in the agreement, used their own employees to perform electrical work, according to the court. The union and the defendants agreed to settle the matter during arbitration, which allowed IBEW 98 to pursue damages.
IBEW 98 brought suit after the arbitrator decided that the case was not arbitrable under the project labor agreement. The Democratic National Convention Committee, an arm of the DNC itself, and the networks requested the case be dismissed for failure to state a claim. The media outlets—including CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News and CNN—also argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.
The applicable statute in this case is the Labor Relations Act, Pratter said in her opinion.
“This lawsuit is between not only an employer and a labor organization, but also third-party news organizations not contemplated by the statute. The news organizations argue that their presence in the case extinguishes the court’s subject-matter jurisdiction,” Pratter said. “But this argument conflates the concept of personal jurisdiction and subject-matter jurisdiction. All parties agree that the court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the dispute at issue because both the PLA and the settlement agreement are contracts ‘between an employer and a labor organization.’ Given that this case arises under the laws of the United States, the court can validly hear the case.”
As for the arbitrator’s authority in the matter, Pratter said that unless the parties’ agreement contained clear language granting the arbitrator the authority to make a call on arbitrability, the power rests with the court.
“The court finds no such clear language in the agreement. The DNCC concedes that the settlement agreement does not explicitly address the question of arbitrability. Instead, it argues that different provisions in the PLA require that the question of arbitrability must be decided by the arbitrator. There are three such provisions in the PLA that could possibly lead to this conclusion, but the court finds none of them availing,” Pratter said.
The union is represented by Regina Hertzig of Cleary, Josem & Trigiani; the DNC, by Thomas Barton of Drinker Biddle & Reath; and the news outlets, by Brian Shire of Susanin Widman Brennan. None responded to requests for comment.