Settlement Agreement Spawns New Round of Appeals

When a union representative signed a settlement agreement on behalf of an employee it was representing back in 2000, the agreement was not to litigate the issue further. The Postal Service probably thought the case was over. But the union then went to arbitration anyway, the employee went to the MSPB and then to federal court arguing that because he had not personally signed the agreement, it was invalid. Seven years later, the issue may now be resolved.

A Postal Service employee, unhappy with a settlement agreement signed on his behalf by his union, tried unsuccessfully to get the appeals court to throw the agreement out. (Walter v. United States Postal Service, C.A.F.C. No. 2007-3294 (nonprecedential), 12/10/07)

Walter turned to the American Postal Workers Union to file a grievance on his behalf to challenge an adverse promotion decision. The Union and the agency ended up signing a settlement agreement to resolve the grievance. Walter did not sign the settlement. Under the collective bargaining agreement the Union was authorized to sign such a settlement on behalf of the grievant. (Opinion p. 2)

The settlement agreement contained a provision that Walter could not litigate any claims related to the grievance and that neither side could file an action to try to set the agreement aside. (p. 2)

In spite of this language, the Union eventually challenged the validity of the agreement on various grounds and evoked arbitration on Walter’s behalf. The Union argued that the agreement was not valid because Walter had not signed it. However, the arbitrator rejected this argument, concluding that the settlement agreement had been signed by Walter’s authorized union representatives and was therefore binding. (p. 2)

At this point, Walter tried to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board challenging the agency’s original adverse promotion decision. He tried to persuade the Board that the settlement agreement was invalid since he had not personally signed it. Unfortunately for Walter, the Board found that he was estopped from arguing this point because it had been argued and decided by the arbitrator. The Board refused to reconsider the validity argument, found that the settlement agreement did not give Walter the right to file an appeal to the Board, and dismissed his appeal. (p. 2)

Undaunted, Walter took his case to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, but he fared no better there. He threw out to the court the same argument challenging the agreement’s validity given the fact that Walter had not signed it personally. The court’s response? "This argument is without merit." The arbitrator decided this issue, and that is the end of it, says the court. Further the settlement agreement "precludes him from re-litigating the merits of the underlying dispute." (p. 3)

In short, Walter is bound by the agreement signed on his behalf by the Union. Case closed.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.