APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND [Hon. John J. McConnell, Jr., U.S. District Judge].
Arthur G. Telegen, with whom James M. Hlawek and Seyfarth Shaw LLP, were on brief for appellant.
Marc B. Gursky, with whom Elizabeth Wiens and Gursky Law Associates, was on brief for appellees Local 2323 and Claimants.
Adam J. Sholes, Special Assistant Attorney General, Peter F. Kilmartin, Attorney General, and Thomas A. Palombo, Assistant Attorney General, was on brief for appellee Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.
Before: Torruella, Thompson and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.
TORRUELLA, Circuit Judge.
Plaintiff-Appellant Verizon New England, Inc. ("Verizon") appeals from an order dismissing its federal court action against the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training ("RIDLT") and claimant members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ("IBEW"), Local 2323, who claimed unemployment benefits following a large-scale work stoppage at Verizon ("Claimants"). After careful consideration, we affirm the district court's dismissal, but on the singular ground that dismissal is warranted under the Younger abstention doctrine.
A. Factual Background
Verizon was a party to a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") with six IBEW local unions (the "System Council T-6"), which included Local 2323. The CBA was in effect from August 3, 2008 until August 6, 2011. Between June 22, 2011 and August 6, 2011, the parties to the CBA attempted to reach a new agreement through negotiations. During said negotiations, on July 26, 2011, Verizon sent a letter to System Council T-6 notifying them in writing that, "if we do not reach a new agreement by August 6, the arbitration provisions of the various labor contracts would not be in effect for grievances."
Verizon and System Council T-6 were unable to reach a new agreement before the CBA expired. System Council T-6 called for a work stoppage, and its members commenced picketing Verizon's facilities and remote work sites in New England. On or around August 23, 2011, Verizon reached an agreement with System Council T-6 under which the members of the various unions would return to work under the terms of the expired CBA. After the employees returned to work, approximately 800 members of the various unions employed by Verizon in Rhode Island applied for unemployment benefits before RIDLT.
On August 29, 2011, the Director of RIDLT denied the Claimants' application for unemployment benefits, concluding that they became unemployed as a result of a strike and were thus barred from such benefits under Section 28-44-16 of the Rhode Island Employment Security Act. Section 28-44-16(a) of that Act provides that an individual will not be entitled to benefits "if he or she became unemployed because of a strike or other industrial controversy in the establishment in which he or she was employed, " but Section 28-44-16(b), which governs lockouts, provides that an individual is entitled to benefits if "unemployment is a result of his or her employer's withholding of employment for the purpose of resisting collective bargaining demands or gaining collective bargaining concessions."
The Claimants appealed the Director's denial of unemployment benefits to the RIDLT's Board of Review. On May 22, 2012, the Board reversed the Director's denial of unemployment benefits and found that the Claimants were entitled to receive unemployment benefits under Section 28-44-16(b). Specifically, the Board found a series of actions on the part of Verizon to have constituted a constructive and actual lockout, including: "deleting of the arbitration provisions, " which created a "substantial change to the status quo"; allowing Claimants to return to work if the current CBA were modified by removing the arbitration provisions; denying Claimants' access to Verizon's computers for employer business and Claimants' personal business (i.e., 401 accounts, health insurance, sick and vacation time, etc.) in preparation for the impending job action; collecting Claimants' employer-issued swipe/identification cards, employer-issued cell phones, laptops, various other tools and equipment; locking doors, chaining gates, and, at various work sites, having no personnel to allow Claimants access to work; and violating its past practice of allowing employees to work under an expired unmodified agreement. The Board also found that "record testimony established that the constructive lockout morphed into ...