A group of unionized casino workers in Las Vegas, Nevada,
gathered on a break in the employee dining room for a union meeting. Their
contract was nearly over, and negotiations with management were under way. One
of the workers stood on a chair to rally the group, and soon they were chanting
and shouting. That's when things turned ugly.
What happened. Once
the chanting began, security guards burst into the room, presumably to try to
quiet the employees. They headed for the chair-standing ring leader, but union
members locked arms in a circle around him. Guards rushed the group, pushing
and shoving them until they reached the leader, whom they handcuffed. In the
scuffle, six employees sustained enough injuries that they sued the casino in
state court for committing torts--assault, battery, and
imprisonment--against them. Simply put, a tort is an act that is not
covered by law or contract and injures someone--also called a civil wrong.
But the employers, Circus Circus Casinos, arguing that the
suit was preempted by the federal Labor Management Relations Act, removed it to
federal district court. Preemption would be proper if the dispute required
interpretation of the workers' collective bargaining agreement. The federal
district court judge agreed with the casino that the case was all about the
union contract and dismissed it. The employees appealed to the 9th Circuit,
which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada,
Oregon, and Washington.
What the court said. Casino managers pointed to language in the contract specifying that union
activities must not interfere with the employer's business operations and that
the employer has the right to 'direct and control' its workers. They reasoned,
as had the district judge, that whether the shouting and chanting was
disruptive to business required interpretation of that provision of the
collective bargaining agreement. Appellate judges did not agree.
Like other such agreements, the contract did not address
whether guards or other employees could assault, threaten, or handcuff union
workers. The question was not whether the workers had been disruptive, judges
said. The question was whether guards had a right to assault them for it. No
contract interpretation was needed, and the suit was sent back to state court
for the workers to pursue their tort charges. Ward et al. v. Circus Circus, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, No.
Point to remember: Had the casino won the ruling, the workers would have been left with submitting
their injury claims to workers' compensation and their other charges to
arbitration or federal labor relations adjudication.