To read the previous posting on this subject. click here:
As regular readers know, our local has been involved in federal litigation since late 2008 – when Lee Enterprises notified those who had retired under the old (blue) contract, which ran from 1994 to 2204, that Lee would no longer provide free health care and those retirees would now have to pay a portion of the cost. One year later – in late 2009 – Lee struck again and announced that those retirees would now have to pay ALL of the premium cost.
2010 saw the end of the (yellow) contract and so, at the end of that year, Lee struck once more, telling those who retired under THAT (2004-2010) contract that free health care would no longer be provided for them as well (this was in spite of the fact that Lee had coaxed many of them out the door before reaching age 55, with buyouts that included written promises of free health care for the retiree’s lifetime!).
Each time Guild retirees were attacked, the Guild responded by filing a grievance. Lee’s response was always to deny it, asserting that expired contracts cannot be grieved (normally true) and that retirees – no longer part of any workforce represented by the union – can no longer file grievances or have grievances filed on their behalf (also normally true). After each denial, the Guild filed suit in federal court seeking to compel arbitration. Our action was designed to force the company to participate in the grievance procedure as spelled out in past and current contracts, asserting that the right to medical care in retirement was a ‘vested’ right and that it vested the day the employee went out the door. All that other stuff about bargaining units and contract expiration – while nominally true – could not trump it.
After a while the lawsuits started piling up: two concerning blue contract employees and one concerning yellow contract employees, made a total of three. Then Lee made the supremely classy move of filing counter claims, counter suits and suing its former employees (you can’t make this stuff up) from each contract and named seemingly random individuals as “class representatives.” Such a move by Lee meant that those they named as representatives could incur their own legal costs and I cannot speak to Lee’s strategy at that point and I’m at a loss to understand – and therefore cannot explain – just how those they named are representative of all the retirees under their respective contracts. Lee’s last action now meant we had five federal lawsuits on our hands.
As I type this, all the blue contract lawsuits have been consolidated into one and the yellow contract lawsuits have been consolidated as well. So we are back down to two cases: blue litigation and yellow litigation. The following is a more detailed timeline of what has occurred so far and what looms next on the legal horizon:
BLUE: In September 2010, the federal district court ordered the PD to arbitrate the Guild grievance filed on behalf of Blue contract retirees regarding healthcare changes. In June of this year, the Eighth Circuit remanded the case with the instruction that, in determining arbitrability, the district court must determine whether retiree health care benefits vested during the term of the Blue contract. In August, the PD and Lee Enterprises filed counterclaims and countersuits respectively against the Guild and two Blue Contract retirees (Phyllis Librach and Joanne Diaz), seeking to transform the suit into class action litigation and requesting a declaratory judgment that they could change or eliminate retiree benefits in any manner without violating the CBA or the ERISA statute. All cases were consolidated into one Blue contract retiree healthcare lawsuit. The Guild and retirees have moved to dismiss the class action claims and countersuit; that motion will likely be decided later this year.
The parties are engaging in further discovery (depositions, interrogatories and document production) that will conclude at the end of February 2012. At that time, the Blue suit will likely be scheduled for trial.
YELLOW: The Guild filed suit in February 2011, to compel arbitration of its grievance regarding changes to Yellow contract retiree health care. As in the Blue contract litigation, the PD and Lee filed counterclaims and countersuits against the Guild and three Yellow Contract retirees (Dennis Nord, Ron Emig and Susan Jolly) again seeking class action litigation and requesting a declaratory judgment that retiree healthcare benefits could be changed or eliminated without violating the CBA or ERISA. All cases were consolidated, and the Guild and retirees moved to dismiss the class action claims. Again, the motion to dismiss should be decided by the end of the year.
Discovery in the Yellow lawsuit should conclude by April 2012. A trial will likely be held in the summer 2012.