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Court seemed sympathetic to expanding members’ rights to sue public-sector union


During arguments in a potentially precedent-setting matter, State Court of Appeals judges last week appeared open to broadening the right of public-sector union members to sue their unions over violations of the union’s constitution. 

The case pits Edwin Agramonte, a city lifeguard, against his union, District Council 37’s Local 461, which he sued after seasonal lifeguards were barred from running in the local’s February 2021 leadership elections

Agramonte is arguing that the local’s leadership violated the union’s constitution and that of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 461’s parent union, because they allowed just a small portion of the union’s membership to run or even to vote in the election. 

Two lower courts declined to hear the case, citing a 1951 precedent, Martin v Curran, which, the lower courts noted, permit union members to sue their unions only if every member is affected by an alleged violation. 

But, following last week’s arguments, Agramonte’s lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, told The Chief that he’s hopeful the appeals court judges would find that the Martin precedent doesn’t apply in Agramonte’s case because, he argued, that precedent has in the past been applied only  to cases where a union member is seeking monetary damages.  

The judges repeatedly asked Schwartz to confirm that Agramonte was only seeking injunctive relief — the overturning of the 2021 election — and not damages. Chief Judge Rowan Wilson asked the union’s lawyer, Hanan Kolko, why Martin would be “any sort of obstacle” to Agramonte’s suit given that Agramonte isn’t seeking damages. 

And Judge Michael Garcia appeared skeptical of Kolko’s arguments, questioning him over the court’s role in interpreting contracts and constitutions and sparring with Kolko over interpretations of case precedent.  

Kicked back to lower courts? 

Schwartz said that while he never predicts the outcome of cases he argues, he said the judges seemed sympathetic to his arguments about the potential implications of not allowing union members to sue their unions over constitutional violations. 

“I think [the judges] were pretty responsive,” Schwartz told The Chief on Thursday. “They could easily, without getting into the underlying question [of the case], say that Martin was about damages and not injunctive relief and therefore shouldn’t be applied here." 

In that outcome, Schwartz surmised, the case would return to a trial court, which could then litigate the issues and eventually decide whether the union violated its constitution. The arguments at the Court of Appeals last week  were focused mainly on the application of precedents and not on the allegations of constitutional violations Agramonte brought. “The actual questions presented by the facts in this case have yet to be discussed,” said Schwartz. 

At one point in the hearing, Kolko pushed back against the possibility of returning the case to a lower court, urging the judges to “reject the attempt by appellants to legislate from the bench but beyond that to send it back to trial courts to have standardless reviews of unions elections.” 

That argument led Garcia to insist that each union’s constitution would be the standard in any judicial review such as the one Agramonte is requesting. 

Kolko declined to speak on the record with The Chief, citing a lack of authorization from DC37. 

A decision in Agramonte’s case could be handed down by New York State Court of Appeals at any time but Schwartz expects it sometime in June. Nominations will be held for Local 461’s leadership positions next week and, just like in 2021, seasonal members are not expected to be allowed to run for office or vote. 


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