James R. Keller
This article appeared on Page 10 of the January-February 2006 issue of St. Louis Construction News & Review.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently concluded that Ruzicka Electric may proceed to a jury trial on its claims against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1, AFL-CIO, for allegations of an illegal picket and secondary activity and invasion of privacy. The case is Ruzicka Electric and Sons, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1, 427 F.3d 511 (8th Cir. 2005), decided October 11, 2005.
In reaching this result, the Eighth Circuit overturned a federal district court's decision to take the entire case away from the jury after Ruzicka presented its evidence, but before any evidence from defendant Local 1. The trial court had ruled as a matter of law that Ruzicka failed to prove any claim with enough legal sufficiency to merit continuing the trial.
The Eighth Circuit, having the superior voice on this decision, disagreed. Trial judges rarely grant a defendant's motion-as occurred here-to stop the trial after plaintiff has presented its case, even though defendants routinely make such motions.
Local 1 must now defend claims that during its picket against Ruzicka at two construction sites it violated federal law by causing companies not involved in the dispute to stop working, resulting in additional costs to Ruzicka to complete its work. Local 1 was picketing because of its belief that Ruzicka was paying its non-union employees "substandard wages and fringe benefits."
The construction projects consisted of electrical work on a student center at Lindenwood University and on a new elementary school for the Fergusson-Florissant School District. At both places there was a picketed location where Ruzicka and its deliveries passed through and a "neutral" gate for companies and workers who were not involved in the picket. Local 1 claimed it had no grievance against Lindenwood or the school district.
Ruzicka alleged in its lawsuit, among other things, that Local 1 engaged in unlawful secondary activity-that is, activity contrary to federal law that coerces or restrains someone not involved in the labor dispute from making deliveries or otherwise doing business with anyone at the construction site. Ruzicka's proof at trial included that Local 1 picketed the neutral gate and used neutral observers to participate in actual picketing who then asked neutral workers not involved in the dispute to refuse to work there. Local 1 denied these claims.
Ruzicka offered evidence that the Lindenwood project was completed about 70 days late at least in part due to Local 1's picketing activities that allegedly caused workers to walk off the job. Ruzicka claimed this produced a snowball effect that threw off the entire schedule, impacting the completion of items on the critical path.
For example, according to Ruzicak, about 40 ironworkers refused to work, thus delaying progress on the front end of the critical path. This delay adversely affected Ruzicka by compressing its portion of the schedule.
Ruzicka presented evidence of damages for the Lindenwood work of $194,000 due to cost overruns resulting from alleged "schedule conflicts and the chaos and the interference from Local 1 with their illegal picketing on the project." It also sought damages for an additional 5,741 man hours to complete the work at the elementary school.
Thomas Ruzicka, president and founder of Ruzicka Electric, also sued Local 1 for invasion of privacy, claiming that Local 1 engaged investigators who trespassed by conducting surveillance at his private home. Ruzicka claimed this to be an unreasonable intrusion upon his own seclusion, a right protected under Missouri case law.
According to Ruzicka's testimony at trial, his home was built for seclusion, had posted no trespassing signs, and was well fortified from intrusion, including 100 feet of trees. He claimed that viewing his home from public space was not possible. The investigators testified that they did not enter Ruzicka's property during any surveillance.
The Eighth Circuit noted that a claim for invasion of privacy requires proof of three elements: (1) the existence of a secret and private matter; (2) a right of the person complaining to keep the matter private; and (3) the obtaining of information about that matter by defendant through some method that would be objectionable to the reasonable person.
The Eighth Circuit quickly found there was sufficient evidence at trial on the first two elements. The court turned its attention to the third element-proof that Local 1's investigators obtained information about Ruzicka's home through some method objectionable to the reasonable person.
On this element, the Eighth Circuit concluded that a reasonable person may object to strangers entering Ruzicka's posted private home to "record when he sleeps and awakes inside his home, and may consider such as highly offensive." This element presents a jury question, according to the appellate court, and the trial judge should not have taken this decision from the jury.
James R. Keller is a partner at Herzog Crebs LLP where he concentrates his practice on complex business litigation, construction law and ADR. He also is a mediator and an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association.