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Henrikson v. Town of East Greenwich

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 23, 2015


For Kristen A Henrikson, Plaintiff: William J. Conley, Jr., LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of William J. Conley Jr., Providence, RI; Deidre E. Carreno, Law Office of William J. Conley, Jr., East Providence, RI.

For East Greenwich Fire Fighters Association, Local 3328, International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO, CLC, Defendant: Elizabeth A. Wiens, Marc B. Gursky, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Gursky Law Associates, North Kingstown, RI; Mary Welsh McBurney, Hanson Curran LLP, One Turks Head Place, Providence, RI.

For Town of East Greenwich, by and through its Finance Director, Kathleen Raposa, in her official capacity, Defendant: James T. Murphy, LEAD ATTORNEY, Mary Welsh McBurney, Hanson Curran, LLP, One Turks Head Place, Providence, RI.


John J. McConnell, Jr., United States District Judge.

This lawsuit arises out of the employment of Kristen A. Henrikson by the Town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island (" Town" ), and, specifically, out of the Town's failure to permit her, as a then-existing Union member filling the position of Chief Tax Clerk, to transfer into a vacant firefighter[1] position without fulfilling five test-based qualifications spelled out in the Application Package (" posting" ) for the vacancy. (ECF No. 58-7 at 2). Ms. Henrikson contends that she was not obligated to fulfill those qualifications because she was applying as a " transfer" and not as a new hire, and that the only criteria she was required to meet were seven general items specified in the Collective Bargaining Agreement itself that were not specific to a firefighter position. She maintains that the Town's failure to transfer her was not only a breach of contract but an act of sex discrimination, both intentional and in its impact. She further contends that her Union failed to represent her in good faith and, moreover, conspired with the Town to deprive her of her civil rights.

Jurisdiction for the nine-count Complaint[2] is provided by 28 U.S.C. § § 2201, 2202 and 1331, with respect to the claims that arise under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq., and 42. U.S.C. § § 1983 and 1985. Supplemental jurisdiction is appropriate for the state law claims of Breach of Contract and Breach of the Duty to Represent, as well as that claiming a violation of the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, R.I.G.L. § 42-112-1 et seq. See, Godin v. Schencks, 629 F.3d 79, 83 (1st Cir. 2010) (supplemental jurisdiction appropriate when state claims are so related they form part of the same case or controversy).

The Town and Union have filed for summary judgment on all counts, contending that none of Ms. Henrikson's claims should proceed to trial. (ECF Nos. 56, 57). The individual counts will be discussed below, but it suffices to say at this juncture that as to some claims the Defendants maintain there is no disputed evidence of material fact and they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law; as to others, the Defendants maintain the statute of limitations has expired; as to yet others, the Defendants maintain Ms. Henrikson has failed to exhaust state or administrative remedies.[3] Ms. Henrikson has cross-filed for summary judgment with respect to Count VII (ECF 63), which alleges the Town breached its contract with her.

In summary, for the reasons that follow, the Court finds that (a) the Town and Union did not breach the collective bargaining agreement because the agreement allowed the Town to impose additional qualifications for becoming a firefighter and Ms. Henrikson did not meet them; (2) the Union did not breach its fiduciary duty to Ms. Henrikson because it correctly interpreted the agreement and therefore had no duty to further pursue Ms. Henrikson's grievance and (3) there is insufficient evidence of gender-based discrimination in the record to support any of the civil rights claims. Therefore the Court grants the Motions of the Town and Union for Summary Judgment as to all Counts, and denies Ms. Henrikson's cross-Motion for Summary Judgment.


Factual Background

Few facts are disputed here, and none upon which liability rests. The undisputed facts reveal that Kristen Henrikson has been employed by the Town of East Greenwich for approximately 12 years, serving at the time she filed the lawsuit as Chief Tax Clerk of the East Greenwich Fire District.[4] Sometime in December 2008, she expressed to then-Fire Chief John McKenna her desire to transfer to the position of Fire Marshall. At all relevant times, Ms. Henrikson has been a member of the East Greenwich Fire Fighters Association, Local 3328, International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO, CLC (hereafter " Union" ), and a Collective Bargaining Agreement (hereafter " CBA" )[5] has governed certain aspects of employment, including the filling of vacancies. Ms. Henrikson was offered the position of Fire Marshal and accepted it.[6] Shortly thereafter, however, she changed her mind and decided to stay as Chief Tax Clerk until she had completed the qualifications for the position of firefighter; at that point, she was working on but had not yet completed a certification as EMT-C[ardiac] that all parties agree was a qualification for a firefighter.

On May 26, 2009, Ms. Henrikson requested to be transferred to what was then a vacant firefighter position. Although she was still in the process of obtaining the EMT-C certification, she requested that the position be held open until she had finished that course. The Town did not do so. During the course of the next few months, a series of conversations and meetings occurring among Ms. Henrikson, the Fire Chief, Union officials, and the Union Executive Board, revealed their disagreement as to the qualifications required for an existing employee to transfer into a firefighter vacancy. As explicated in more detail below, Ms. Henrikson maintains that she is excused from meeting five test-based qualifications contained in the posting for firefighter (ECF No. 58-7) because she is an existing employee; her assertion is that only new hires must meet those test-based qualifications.

A meeting occulted on May 26, 2009, involving Ms. Henrikson, Chief McKenna, and William Purcell, the President of the Union. (ECF No. 48-4 at 24). According to Mr. Purcell's deposition, Chief McKenna was advocating that Ms. Henrikson bid for a firefighter vacancy and espousing the position that she met the qualifications for transfer. Id. Mr. Purcell, speaking for the Union, questioned whether she did and consulted with the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters. ( Id. at 29-30). The Defendants dispute the characterization of Chief McKenna's position, but this is not a material fact that influences the outcome of the summary judgment motions. Even had he initially thought differently, by letter dated July 10, 2009, Chief McKenna denied Ms. Henrikson's request to fill the vacant firefighter position (ECF No. 58-8) on the ground that she had not completed the required tests. (ECF No. 58-9).

Ms. Henrikson filed a grievance requesting that she be given the next available firefighter vacancy. (ECF No. 58-11). She met with the Executive Board of the Union and the Union denied the grievance three days later. (ECF No. 46-6), There is an appeal process outlined in the CBA if the Union is dissatisfied (ECF No. 58-2 at 33), but no appeal was taken and the Union failed to pursue the grievance. (ECF No. 63-4).

The operative event giving rise to the lawsuit concerns a second request by Ms. Henrikson on November 4, 2009, to be hired to fill another firefighter position that had become vacant. Ms. Henrikson appeared before the Board of Commissioners of the then-East Greenwich Fire District, but at its next meeting the Board rejected her transfer on the stated ground that she was not qualified; at this meeting, the Town formally took the same position as the Union that Ms. Henrikson had failed to successfully complete the five tests contained in the posting. (ECF No. 58-13 at 8-9; ECF No. 48-8 at 6-7).

Ms. Henrikson subsequently filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights. (ECF No. 58-16). The Commission found " no probable cause" and dismissed the action, but it issued Notices of Right to Sue. (ECF No. 3-2), This lawsuit followed,[7]


The Core Disputed Legal Issue

The core dispute between the parties requires an interpretation of language in the CBA referencing the filling of vacancies either by transferring existing employees or by hiring new ones. Ms. Henrikson contends that the only qualifications she, as a transferring employee, must meet are seven non-job-specific criteria specified in ¶ 1-2 of the bargaining agreement. The seven relate to citizenship, a physical examination, " legal age of employment," having and maintaining an EMT-C license and a RI driver's license, and motor vehicle and criminal history. The Town and the Union, however, contend that both transferring employees, including Ms. Henrikson, and new employees, must meet five additional firefighter-specific, test-based qualifications that are contained in the Application Package (" posting" ) for the firefighter vacancy. (ECF No. 58-7 at 2) (physical performance assessment test, a written exam, a swim test, a ladder test, and an oral interview). There is no dispute that Ms. Henrikson meets the seven items specified in the CBA, but does not meet the five test-based qualifications contained in the posting.[8]

Because the Fire District did not consider Ms. Henrikson qualified for the firefighter position, it refused to include her on the " eligibility list" for that position. It is from the " eligibility list" that the Town chooses applicants. CBA § 11-1 (ECF No. 58-2 at 14).

Count VII, which alleges a breach of contract, directly turns on the resolution of the above dispute. If the contract allows the five test-based, job-specific qualifications, it has, not been breached by the insistence of the Town that Ms. Henrikson meet them in order to qualify for employment as a firefighter, If, on the other hand, the CBA does not require transferred employees to successfully complete those five tests, the contract has been breached.

All other counts of the Complaint are intertwined analytically with the breach of contract claim. For example, if the Union's position on qualifications is borne out by the contract, that is relevant to whether the Union, by not pursuing Ms. Henrikson's grievance, has failed to discharge its duty to fairly represent her. If the Town's position on qualifications is an accurate mandate of the contract, that is relevant to whether the reason for not placing Ms. Henrikson on the eligibility list of persons qualified to fill the firefighter vacancy was due to sex discrimination or instead something not emblematic of unlawful treatment.

Therefore the Court will address the breach of contract claim first, as its decision on that issue will inform much of the remaining discussion.


Summary Judgment

Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the summary judgment process. It provides,

Rule 56. Summary Judgment
A party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense -- or the part of each claim or defense -- on which summary judgment is sought. The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

By the terms of Rule 56, a party is entitled to summary judgment only if both conditions specified in Rule 56 are met: that " no genuine dispute [exists] as to any material fact" and that the undisputed facts demonstrate that the party is " entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See, Knight v. Mills, 836 F.2d 659, 664 (1st Cir. 1987) ( undisputed material facts, together with inferences drawn against the movant, " must lead to one reasonable conclusion in favor of the movant" to justify summary judgment). A material fact is one that " might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. ... Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

Summary judgment deprives the parties of the opportunity to have a jury determine the outcome. But it serves the important purpose of weeding out those cases that do not warrant a trial because there are no facts in dispute to be decided by a jury: " [The summary judgment] rule acts as a firewall to contain the blaze of cases that are so lacking in either factual foundation or legal merit that trial would be a useless exercise." Conward v. Cambridge School Committee, 171 F.3d 12, 18 (1st Cir. 1999), quoted in Napier v. Town of Windham, 187 F.3d 177, 184 (1st Cir, 1999). " [T]he 'salutary purposes of summary judgment -- avoiding protracted, expensive and harassing trials -- apply no less to discrimination cases' than to other types of cases." Feinson v. New Sch. For Soc. Research, 1997 WL 742532 at 8 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Thus, the law requires that all reasonable inferences be drawn against the moving party and that summary judgment be granted if the undisputed facts and inferences that flow from them allow of only one reasonable conclusion in favor of the movant. Knight, supra, citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, [251, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202] (1986).

A. Count VII: Breach of Contract

Ms. Henrikson's breach of contract claim is governed by Rhode Island state law. The Court must first decide whether the language of the contract is ambiguous on its face, and that is an issue of law. Inland Am. Retail Mgmt. LLC v. Cinemaworld of Fla., Inc., 68 A.3d 457, 461-62 (R.I. 2013). The initial determination of ambiguity is made on the face of the document, giving the words their plain and ordinary meaning, without recourse to discerning the intent of the parties or reference to extrinsic evidence. Id. at 462. If the court finds that the language is ambiguous, it then looks to extrinsic evidence, including the construction put on the terms by the parties, to determine that intent. Elena Carcieri Trust-1988 v. Enter.Rent-A-Car Co., 871 A.2d 944, 947 (R.I. 2005).

The Town and Union assert that the contract permits extrinsically-referenced qualifications for firefighter (and that those five test-based qualifications are contained in the posting for the position), while Ms. Henrikson asserts that the CBA itself contains the exclusive - and limited - qualifications for firefighter with regard to a person transferring from another position in the Fire Department. There are six provisions of the CBA [9] upon which the parties rely in promoting their respective interpretations of the bargaining agreement.


ELIGIBILITY LIST: A list of names of persons who have been found qualified through suitable tests or through ...

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