Ruling Could Allow Lawsuits Despite Arbitration Clause

Even if a union contract requires employment disputes to be handled through arbitration, it may still be possible -- under some circumstances -- for a union member to file a discrimination lawsuit against his or her employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That's the interpretation of a November U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of a dock worker. "The right to a federal judicial forum is of sufficient importance to be protected against a less-than-specific union waiver [in a union contract]", wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the court's majority opinion. The ruling overturns decisions by both a district court in Charleston, N.C., and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. It also reinstates a lawsuit by the dock worker who claims that several shipping companies unlawfully refused to hire him -- three years after he had recovered from an on-the-job injury for which he had received a permanent disability settlement. However, whether everyone covered by a union contract can sue under federal discrimination laws is still unresolved. The reason: The language in the union contract reviewed by the Supreme Court was very general and called merely for arbitration of "matters under dispute." The court did not address the issue of whether contract language that is "clear and unmistakable" in requiring arbitration precludes the filing of a lawsuit.

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