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Vega v. New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

May 15, 2017

Luis Vega, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 18, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:15-cv-07464 - Charles R. Norgle, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Kanne, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

          Rovner, Circuit Judge.

         Luis Vega filed this suit alleging that his former employer, New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC ("New Forest"), by failing to pay him for his final two weeks of work, violated his right under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 206(b), to compensation at the minimum wage. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of New Forest, reasoning that Vega had not exhausted the grievance procedure specified by the collective bargaining agreement between New Forest and the union representing its workforce before he filed suit. R. 25. Because the collective bargaining agreement did not clearly and unmistakably waive Vega's right to pursue his FLSA claim in a judicial forum, we reverse.

         I.

         For purposes of reviewing the court's summary judgment decision, we recite the facts in the light most favorable to Vega. E.g., Thompson v. Holm, 809 F.3d 376, 378 (7th Cir. 2016).

         Vega worked for New Forest as a seasonal employee from May 2010 to June 2015. His employment was conditioned upon membership in the Service Employees International Union (the "union"), and he was therefore subject to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement between the union's local and New Forest. Article VIII of that agreement sets forth a mandatory four-step procedure culminating in arbitration to resolve employee grievances.[1] Section 8.1 of the agreement defines "grievance" to include "a claim or dispute concerning pay, hours[, ] or working conditions or the interpretation or application of this Agreement."

         New Forest terminated Vega from its employ on June 3, 2015. At the time of his discharge, Vega was owed compensation for roughly 54 hours of work in the preceding two weeks. New Forest did not tender a final paycheck to Vega for the wages owed to him, purportedly because it discovered that Vega lacked a valid Social Security number and it did not know how to lawfully make payment to him without such a number.

         The parties dispute whether Vega made efforts to initiate a grievance regarding his final paycheck in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. Vega avers that he did. He has submitted a declaration indicating that he raised the matter with his union steward, Arzaius Lander, who told him to contact Charles Jones, a union representative with the local bargaining unit. Vega represents that he attempted to reach Jones by telephone and left messages with his office, but to no avail. Lander and Jones have both submitted affidavits denying that Vega ever sought the union's assistance with his unpaid wages.

         Vega, having concluded that any further attempts to pursue the grievance process would be futile, instead filed suit in the district court. Count I of Vega's complaint asserts that New Forest, in failing to pay him the wages owed for his last two weeks of work, has violated section 6(b) of the FLSA, which requires employers to pay an employee engaged in interstate commerce no less than the federal minimum wage (specified in section 6(a) of the statute) for his work. 29 U.S.C. § 206(b). Counts II and III assert pendent state claims for violation of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act, 820 ILCS 115/1, et seq., and for breach of contract.

         New Forest promptly moved to dismiss the suit because Vega had not exhausted the grievance procedure specified in the collective bargaining agreement for any dispute about wages, and the district court ultimately entered summary judgment against Vega on that basis[2] as to his FLSA claim. R. 25. Although it recognized that Vega was suing to enforce his rights under the FLSA as opposed to the collective bargaining agreement, the court believed it to be the "generally established" rule that a union member "must follow the [collective bargaining] agreement's established grievance procedures before [he] can bring a lawsuit." R. 25 at 3 (collecting cases). The court was willing to assume, in light of Vega's representation that he attempted to reach Jones by telephone on multiple occasions, that he had followed the first step of the grievance process (contacting the union) as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement. R. 25 at 3. But the court found Vega's account insufficient to establish that he had otherwise exhausted his contractual remedies or that his efforts to do so were frustrated by the union. R. 25 at 3. The court entered judgment in favor of New Forest on that basis, and relinquished jurisdiction over Vega's state and common law claims. R. 25 at 3-4.

         II.

         Our review of the district court's summary judgment decision is, of course, de novo. E.g., Madison Mut. Ins. Co. v. Diamond State Ins. Co., 851 F.3d 749, 753 (7th Cir. 2017). The question posed is straightforward: Does the collective bargaining agreement require Vega to resolve his FLSA minimum wage claim through the specified grievance procedure, or does it allow him ...


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