March 28, 2012 9:59pm PT by Jonathan Handel
Judge Denies Injunction Against SAG/AFTRA Vote Count
Citing a “well-established federal policy of avoiding unnecessary interference in the internal affairs of unions,” U.S. District Court judge James Otero Wednesday denied an injunction sought by opponents of SAG/AFTRA merger that would have preemptively voided the referendum now in process. The judge’s decision allows the vote tally to proceed. That count is scheduled for Friday, with results to be announced at 1:00 p.m. PT.
“Voting in favor of merger may or may not be in the best interest of the majority of Union Members,” said the court’s 25-page ruling, “but the decision, for better or worse, belongs to the Members – not to Plaintiffs, and certainly not to the Court.”
The opinion also said “it appears that SAG’s democratic process is functioning properly.”
If the merger vote passes – which requires 60 percent Yes votes from each union – the unions are automatically and immediately merged.
SAG vice president Ned Vaughn called the ruling “a victory on (the member’s) behalf.” He added, “we’re all looking forward to Friday when the members’ wishes will finally be expressed, and I’m optimistic they will choose the strength of unity.”
In addition to denying an injunction, the court dismissed a claim that SAG and its officers have denied the membership its right to cast a meaningful vote by refusing to conduct an actuarial study, but allowed fiduciary duty and union contract claims to proceed.
The plaintiffs said in a statement that they were disappointed, but noted that the decision nonetheless allows the case to continue.
That may be cold comfort, though, since the point of the litigation was to prevent the vote count and merger. In addition, the court may not offer a terribly sympathetic ear as the case proceeds, judging from its ruling:
• “Although diminution of health and pension benefits is a serious matter, Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that such harm is likely to occur upon merger.”
• “Section 13 (of the Phase I agreement in the SAG constitution) only requires that the SAG National Executive Committee recommend a study to the Board. ‘Recommend’ is not synonymous with ‘must conduct.’”
• “It is unlikely that Plaintiffs will be able to overcome Defendants' argument that the Feasibility Review satisfies the requirements of the SAG governing documents.”
• “Even if Plaintiffs succeed in proving that Defendants acted in bad faith, Plaintiffs only argue that Defendants are acting in the interest of AFTRA and ignoring the negative impacts of merger on SAG, but there is nothing in the record to indicate an impermissible motive for Defendants' behavior. It seems unlikely that Plaintiffs will prevail on the merits of their claim.”
SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said, “We are pleased with the court’s action (and are) gratified that the court has indicated that the plaintiffs are unlikely to prevail on their other claims.”
The lawsuit is the fourth in six years brought against the guild by a shifting overlapping group of merger opponents. But it may not be the last: the plaintiffs’ statement concluded by saying “Assuming the merger passes and benefits decline . . . there is ample information in the record to justify class-action lawsuits against those responsible for inducing ‘yes’ for merger votes.”
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