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Newspaper Guild of St. Louis, Local 36047 v. St. Louis Post Dispatch

June 6, 2011

NEWSPAPER GUILD OF ST. LOUIS, LOCAL 36047, TNG-CWA, PLAINTIFF - APPELLEE,
v.
ST. LOUIS POST DISPATCH, LLC, DEFENDANT - APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Melloy, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: April 11, 2011

Before WOLLMAN and MELLOY, Circuit Judges, and MILLER, District Judge.*fn1

St. Louis Post Dispatch, LLC ("Post Dispatch") appeals from the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Newspaper Guild of St. Louis, Local 36047, TNG-CWA ("Guild"), compelling arbitration of a dispute related to healthcare benefits under an expired collective bargaining agreement. For the reasons stated below, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. Background

The Post Dispatch and the Guild are parties to successive collective bargaining agreements, including one dated December 12, 1994 through January 9, 2003 ("1994 Agreement"). The 1994 Agreement provided healthcare benefits under an ERISA-governed welfare benefits plan to eligible employees who retired during the term of *fn2 the Agreement ("Retirees"). Article XVI of the 1994 Agreement reads as follows:

The Employer shall provide for the term of this Agreement, beginning February 1, 1999, a group health care plan established with Connecticut General Insurance as set forth in Attachment A.

The Employer reserves the right to change the commercial insurance carrier or to make substantially equivalent benefits available to eligible employees on a self-insured basis or on a basis employing any combination of commercial insurance or self-insured funding. . . .

The Employer agrees to provide for the term of this Agreement on retirement under the terms of the Joseph Pulitzer Pension Plan for each employee covered by this Agreement having ten (10) years or more of continuous service as an employee with the Employer immediately preceding the date of retirement, the group medical insurance benefits provided for in this Article for the retiree. The Employer shall pay the full premium for the employee's coverage only, for the remainder of retired employee's life. It is understood and agreed that the benefits described herein shall remain in effect only for the duration of the retired employee's lifetime.

The Agreement also contains a broad arbitration clause, which permits either party to take to arbitration any "claim or dispute with the Employer by an employee or employees or by the Guild involving an alleged violation by the Employer of the terms of this Agreement," after first following prerequisite grievance procedures.

In October 2008, the Post Dispatch announced its unilateral decision to modify the retiree health plan such that, effective January 1, 2009, Retirees would be required to pay thirty percent of the premium costs for health insurance. In November 2008, the Guild filed a grievance, claiming that, under the terms of the 1994 Agreement, the Post Dispatch is required to pay full health insurance premiums for the lifetime of each Retiree. The Post Dispatch denied the grievance on the ground that its duty to pay full premiums ended with the expiration of the 1994 Agreement, and that it has the right to require Retirees to pay thirty percent of their premiums. The Guild sought to resolve the dispute in arbitration, but the Post Dispatch declined to arbitrate.

On March 13, 2009, the Guild filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri under the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185(a), seeking an order compelling arbitration. The district court granted the Guild's motion for summary judgment and ordered the parties to arbitrate the grievance. The court recognized that because the 1994 Agreement is expired, the Guild's grievance falls within the Agreement's arbitration clause only if the Retirees' right to fully-paid healthcare premiums vested under the Agreement. However, the court declined to decide the vesting issue because to decide the issue would be to rule on the merits of the dispute. The court concluded that because it was "possible" for an arbitrator, consistent with the plain meaning of the Agreement, to rule in favor of the party demanding arbitration, the arbitrators should be allowed to decide the issue in the first instance. The Post Dispatch contends that the district court erred in compelling arbitration without first deciding that the Retirees' right to fully-paid healthcare premiums vested under the 1994 Agreement. The Post Dispatch argues that this benefit did not vest under the terms of the Agreement and, therefore, the Guild's grievance is not arbitrable.

II. Discussion

"We review de novo the decision to grant summary judgment." Crown Cork & Seal Co. v. Int'l Ass'n of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, 501 F.3d 912, 914 (8th Cir. 2007). "Where, as here, an arbitration provision of a contract is at issue, we also review de novo the court's interpretation of the contract and the arbitration clause." Int'l Bhd. of Elec. Workers v. GKN Aerospace N. Am., Inc., 431 F.3d 624, 627 (8th Cir. 2005). "[A]rbitration is a matter of contract and a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit." United Steelworkers v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582 (1960). Thus, when deciding whether to compel arbitration, a court asks whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists, and if so, whether the dispute falls within the scope of that agreement. United ...


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