Union Official Sues AFGE for Defamation

A district court has refused to dismiss a defamation action brought by a local union official against the union and at least one AFGE representative, thus giving this aggrieved union member, a former local AFGE official, a day in court.

A recent case brings to light a dispute within one of the largest federal employee unions, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). See Wood v American Federation of Government Employees (US District Court for District of Columbia Civil Action No. 16-2139 (CKK), 6/15/17)

The facts below are taken from the court’s opinion, which gave leeway in construing facts alleged by Wood in his complaint for purposes of deciding whether the case should be dismissed.

Duane Wood sued AFGE, its National President J. David Cox, and another union official Nathaniel Nelson for defaming him in various emails sent to others in the union concerning Wood’s alleged “financial wrongdoing” when serving as Executive Vice President of AFGE Local 2798. The national union filed a motion to dismiss the case against it and against the two individual union officials, but the district court has now issued a decision, dismissing some claims and one defendant, President Cox, but leaving the defamation suit against the AFGE and against Nelson as an individual to have its day in court. (Opinion p. 1)

Wood worked at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and was elected the Local 2798 Executive Vice President just before the fireworks began. He claims that the local’s executive board tried to contact President Cox to air their concerns about financial mismanagement of union affairs involving Defendant Nelson who served as the local’s National Representative. Hearing nothing back from President Cox, Wood and the other executive board members took their concerns to the U.S. Department of Labor. (p. 2)

That got a response. AFGE District 14 National VP Dwight Bowman met with Wood and the others to talk things over. According to Wood’s court filings, Bowman agreed to replace Nelson as the National Representative for the local, and he agreed that the local’s current leadership was not responsible for “significant missing money” from the local’s funds. As fate would have it, Bowman died before anything could be implemented. According to Wood’s complaint, in steps Nelson who recommended punitive action against the local, Wood and the other board members for their mismanagement of funds. The local was put into receivership. According to Wood, Nelson publicly “relieved” him of his position with the local, and a hearing was convened to look into Wood’s conduct and that of the other local board members. Wood claimed Nelson then “engaged in a ‘smear campaign’ against [him], sending out ‘mass emails’ accusing [him] of ‘everything from stealing computers, hacking government accounts [and] shredding pertinent documents.’” (p. 3)

Apparently the union’s investigation panel eventually ruled in favor of Wood and the other local board members, recommended their reinstatement, and releasing the local from trusteeship. (p. 3)

Several months later more mass emails allegedly were sent out accusing Wood of “committing treason and attempting to ‘decertify’ the union…” and new charges were levied against him. These new charges, according to Wood, resulted in AFGE ruling that he was suspended from union membership for ten years and from holding union office permanently. (p. 3)

In response to Wood’s complaint, AFGE argued several points, each of which is summarized below along with the district court’s response:

  1. The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) preempts Wood’s complaint and therefore it must be dismissed. The court: Not so. While the CSRA “provides a comprehensive scheme to administer adverse personnel actions against federal employees….this type of preemption is not at issue in this case.” (p. 5) But, to the extent Wood’s complaint is alleging certain unfair labor practices against AFGE, then those would be preempted by CSRA since they have to first go to the Federal Labor Relations Authority for handling. Nevertheless, to the extent Wood is asserting he was defamed by AFGE, this would not be preempted.
  2. Plaintiff failed to state a claim and therefore his case should be dismissed. The court: Neither of AFGE’s two arguments for dismissal are “completely persuasive.” (p. 10) What the court did find partially persuasive is that some of Wood’s defamation claims are not timely and therefore are dismissed; however many of the facts he alleged fall within the applicable one-year statute of limitations for bringing such a claim and they will not be dismissed.
  3. Individual defendants (Cox and Nelson) should be dismissed from this case, as any liability should be against AFGE as an organization alone. The court: Agreed to dismiss President Cox in his individual capacity (because there are no allegations tying him to the remaining defamation claim”). The court left the lawsuit standing against AFGE and against defendant Nelson “because….the defamation he is alleged to have committed falls outside of the scope of unfair labor practices defined in [the CSRA].” (p. 12)

Mr. Wood will get his day in court to try to prove the defamation against him by AFGE and by Mr. Nelson.

Wood v AFGE (16-2139)

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.