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Northwest Administrators Inc. v. Western Van Lines Inc.

March 3, 1997


Appeal from Superior Court of King County. Docket No: 94-2-33544-8. Date filed: 07/28/95. Judge signing: Hon. James W. Bates Jr.

Authored by William W. Baker. Concurring: Walter E. Webster, Susan R. Agid.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Baker

BAKER, C.J. - Western Van Lines, Inc. (Western) attempts to avoid making contributions to two employee trusts on behalf of certain employees. It argues that the employees are casual laborers, and that the provisions of a stipulation in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decertification election establish that such employees are not covered by the applicable collective bargaining agreement. Because the contribution obligation is established under the unambiguous terms of the collective bargaining agreement, we hold that the election stipulation does not create a material issue of fact regarding the claim for contributions owed to the employee trusts. We affirm the trial court order granting summary judgment against Western and dismissing Western's counterclaim against Northwest Administrators, Inc. (Northwest) for recovery of contributions allegedly made to the trusts by mistake.


Western entered into a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union No. 174. The CBA obligated Western to make contributions to two employee trust funds administered by Northwest.

Based on audits of the monthly transmittal reports submitted by Western, Northwest determined that Western had underpaid its trust contributions. Northwest brought suit to recover the required contributions and Western counterclaimed to recover payments allegedly made in mistake on behalf of casual employees. *fn1 Meanwhile, in the course of conducting a NLRB decertification election approximately six years after the effective date of the CBA, the parties to the CBA signed a stipulated election agreement. In it, the parties agreed that the appropriate collective bargaining unit for the election included all full-time and regular part-time employees of Western, and excluded "all casual employees, office clerical employees, dispatchers, and guards and supervisors as defined in the Act." *fn2 The trial court entered summary judgment on behalf of Northwest with respect to both its claim for contributions and Western's counterclaim. *fn3


When an action is brought to enforce rights and obligations arising out of a collective bargaining agreement, the general body of federal labor law applies. *fn4 In order to enforce collective bargaining agreements, "state courts must follow the federal law, as fashioned by the federal courts." *fn5 Because employees are presumed to work in reliance on trust funds and the availability of their benefits, there is a strong federal labor policy favoring the protection of trust funds. *fn6 Ordinary rules of contract law govern collective bargaining agreements unless they conflict with, and therefore are superseded by, federal labor policy. *fn7 An employer who is obligated to make contributions to a multi-employer plan under the terms of the plan or under the terms of a CBA shall make "contributions in accordance with the terms and conditions of such plan or such agreement." *fn8 If a judgment in favor of the plan is awarded in a suit to enforce an employer's contribution obligation, the court shall award the plan unpaid contributions, interest on unpaid contributions, liquidated damages and reasonable attorney fees and costs. *fn9


Western argues that the collective bargaining unit covered by the CBA included only full-time and regular part-time employees, and that casual employees were "specifically excluded" from the bargaining unit. Therefore, no trust payments were owed on behalf of casual employees.

Western claims that a material issue of fact regarding whether the payments allegedly owed were for casual employees precludes summary judgment against it. When reviewing an order for summary judgment we engage in the same inquiry as the trial court, considering all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. *fn10 The nonmoving party may not rely on mere allegations to avoid summary judgment, but must set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. *fn11


Western argues that there was an ambiguity in the CBA regarding the scope of the bargaining unit, and therefore summary judgment Disposition of the case was improper. Summary judgment is proper only if the contract provision in question is unambiguous. *fn12 When a collective bargaining agreement's meaning is not clear on its face and contrary inferences may be reached as to intent, "there exists an issue of material fact for which summary judgment is ordinarily inappropriate." *fn13 A contract is not made ambiguous simply because the parties dispute its meaning. *fn14 On the other hand, "dispute over a material fact necessary to interpret the contract may result in ambiguity." *fn15 If the CBA at issue in this case was ambiguous as to whether contributions were required for casual employees, summary judgment would be inappropriate. *fn16 Western attempts to incorporate terminology into the CBA establishing a category of employees not otherwise recognized by the CBA. The CBA is void of any mention of "casual employees." It is clear that the asserted exclusion of casual employees is based solely on the language of the stipulated election agreement. It is not true, as stated by Western, that the stipulation provides further verification that casual employees were not considered as members of the bargaining unit. The stipulation in fact provides the only mention of casual employees.

There is no ambiguity on the face of the CBA regarding casual employees because the CBA does not address casual employees. "Casual employees" is not a term necessary to interpret the CBA, and any claim of ambiguity surrounding the term will not raise an issue of ...

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