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VACA ET AL. v. SIPES

decided: February 27, 1967.

VACA ET AL
v.
SIPES, ADMINISTRATOR



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSOURI.

Warren, Black, Douglas, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas

Author: White

[ 386 U.S. Page 173]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

On February 13, 1962, Benjamin Owens filed this class action against petitioners, as officers and representatives of the National Brotherhood of Packinghouse Workers*fn1 and of its Kansas City Local No. 12 (the Union), in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. Owens, a Union member, alleged that he had been discharged from his employment at Swift & Company's (Swift) Kansas City Meat Packing Plant in violation of the collective bargaining agreement then in force between Swift and the Union, and that the Union had "arbitrarily, capriciously and without just or reasonable reason or cause" refused to take his grievance with Swift to arbitration under the fifth step of the bargaining agreement's grievance procedures.

Petitioners' answer included the defense that the Missouri courts lacked jurisdiction because the gravamen of Owens' suit was "arguably and basically" an unfair labor practice under § 8 (b) of the National Labor Relations Act (N. L. R. A.), as amended, 61 Stat. 141, 29 U. S. C. § 158 (b), within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). After a jury trial, a verdict was returned awarding Owens $7,000 compensatory and $3,300 punitive damages. The trial judge set aside the verdict and entered judgment for petitioners on the ground that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction

[ 386 U.S. Page 174]

     over this controversy, and the Kansas City Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and directed reinstatement of the jury's verdict,*fn2 relying on this Court's decisions in International Assn. of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617, and in Automobile Workers v. Russell, 356 U.S. 634. 397 S. W. 2d 658. During the appeal, Owens died and respondent, the administrator of Owens' estate, was substituted. We granted certiorari to consider whether exclusive jurisdiction lies with the NLRB and, if not, whether the finding of Union liability and the relief afforded Owens are consistent with governing principles of federal labor law. 384 U.S. 969. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Swift, and the United States have filed amicus briefs supporting petitioners. Although we conclude that state courts have jurisdiction in this type of case, we hold that federal law governs, that the governing federal standards were not applied here, and that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri must accordingly be reversed.

I.

In mid-1959, Owens, a long-time high blood pressure patient, became sick and entered a hospital on sick leave from his employment with Swift. After a long rest during which his weight and blood pressure were reduced, Owens was certified by his family physician as fit to resume his heavy work in the packing plant. However, Swift's company doctor examined Owens upon his return and concluded that his blood pressure was too high to permit reinstatement. After securing a second authorization from another outside doctor, Owens returned to the plant, and a nurse permitted him to resume work

[ 386 U.S. Page 175]

     on January 6, 1960. However, on January 8, when the doctor discovered Owens' return, he was permanently discharged on the ground of poor health.

Armed with his medical evidence of fitness, Owens then sought the Union's help in securing reinstatement, and a grievance was filed with Swift on his behalf. By mid-November 1960, the grievance had been processed through the third and into the fourth step of the grievance procedure established by the collective bargaining agreement.*fn3 Swift adhered to its position that Owens' poor health justified his discharge, rejecting numerous medical reports of reduced blood pressure proffered by Owens and by the Union. Swift claimed that these reports were not based upon sufficiently thorough medical tests.

On February 6, 1961, the Union sent Owens to a new doctor at Union expense "to see if we could get some better medical evidence so that we could go to arbitration with his case." R., at 107. This examination did not support Owens' position. When the Union received the report, its executive board voted not to take the Owens grievance to arbitration because of insufficient medical evidence. Union officers suggested to Owens that he accept Swift's offer of referral to a rehabilitation center, and the grievance was suspended for that purpose. Owens rejected this alternative and demanded that the Union take his grievance to arbitration, but the Union

[ 386 U.S. Page 176]

     refused. With his contractual remedies thus stalled at the fourth step, Owens brought this suit. The grievance was finally dismissed by the Union and Swift shortly before trial began in June 1964.*fn4

In his charge to the jury, the trial judge instructed that petitioners would be liable if Swift had wrongfully discharged Owens and if the Union had "arbitrarily . . . and without just cause or excuse . . . refused" to press Owens' grievance to arbitration. Punitive damages could also be awarded, the trial judge charged, if the Union's conduct was "willful, wanton and malicious." However, the jury must return a verdict for the defendants, the judge instructed, "if you find and believe from the evidence that the union and its representatives acted reasonably and in good faith in the handling and processing of the grievance of the plaintiff." R., at 161-162. The jury then returned the general verdict for Owens which eventually was reinstated by the Missouri Supreme Court.

II.

Petitioners challenge the jurisdiction of the Missouri courts on the ground that the alleged conduct of the Union was arguably an unfair labor practice and within the exclusive jurisdiction of the NLRB. Petitioners rely on Miranda Fuel Co., 140 N. L. R. B. 181 (1962), enforcement denied, 326 F.2d 172 (C. A. 2d Cir. 1963), where a sharply divided Board held for the first time that a union's breach of its statutory duty of fair representation violates N. L. R. A. § 8 (b), as amended. With the NLRB's adoption of Miranda Fuel, petitioners argue, the broad pre-emption doctrine defined in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, becomes

[ 386 U.S. Page 177]

     applicable. For the reasons which follow, we reject this argument.

It is now well established that, as the exclusive bargaining representative of the employees in Owens' bargaining unit, the Union had a statutory duty fairly to represent all of those employees, both in its collective bargaining with Swift, see Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, 345 U.S. 330; Syres v. Oil Workers International Union, 350 U.S. 892, and in its enforcement of the resulting collective bargaining agreement, see Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335. The statutory duty of fair representation was developed over 20 years ago in a series of cases involving alleged racial discrimination by unions certified as exclusive bargaining representatives under the Railway Labor Act, see Steele v. Louisville & N. R. Co., 323 U.S. 192; Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 323 U.S. 210, and was soon extended to unions certified under the N. L. R. A., see Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, supra. Under this doctrine, the exclusive agent's statutory authority to represent all members of a designated unit includes a statutory obligation to serve the interests of all members without hostility or discrimination toward any, to exercise its discretion with complete good faith and honesty, and to avoid arbitrary conduct. Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S., at 342. It is obvious that Owens' complaint alleged a breach by the Union of a duty grounded in federal statutes, and that federal law therefore governs his cause of action. E. g., Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, supra.

Although N. L. R. A. § 8 (b) was enacted in 1947, the NLRB did not until Miranda Fuel interpret a breach of a union's duty of fair representation as an unfair labor practice. In Miranda Fuel, the Board's majority held that N. L. R. A. § 7 gives employees "the right to be free from unfair or irrelevant or invidious treatment by their exclusive bargaining agent in matters affecting their

[ 386 U.S. Page 178]

     employment," and "that Section 8 (b)(1)(A) of the Act accordingly prohibits labor organizations, when acting in a statutory representative capacity, from taking action against any employee upon considerations or classifications which are irrelevant, invidious, or unfair." 140 N. L. R. B., at 185. The Board also held that an employer who "participates" in such arbitrary union conduct violates § 8 (a)(1), and that the employer and the union may violate §§ 8 (a)(3) and 8 (b)(2), respectively, "when, for arbitrary or irrelevant reasons or upon the basis of an unfair classification, the union attempts to cause or does cause an employer to derogate the employment status of an employee."*fn5 Id., at 186.

The Board's Miranda Fuel decision was denied enforcement by a divided Second Circuit, 326 F.2d 172 (1963). However, in Local 12, United Rubber Workers v. N. L. R. B., 368 F.2d 12, the Fifth Circuit upheld the Board's Miranda Fuel doctrine in an opinion suggesting that the Board's approach will pre-empt judicial cognizance of some fair representation duty suits. In light of these developments, petitioners argue that Owens' state court action was based upon Union conduct that is arguably proscribed by N. L. R. A. § 8 (b), was potentially enforceable by the NLRB, and was therefore pre-empted under the Garmon line of decisions.

A. In Garmon, this Court recognized that the broad powers conferred by Congress upon the National Labor Relations Board to interpret and to enforce the complex Labor Management Relations Act (L. M. R. A.) necessarily imply that potentially conflicting "rules of law, of remedy, and of administration" cannot be permitted to

[ 386 U.S. Page 179]

     operate. 359 U.S., at 242. In enacting the National Labor Relations Act and later the Labor Management Relations Act,

"Congress did not merely lay down a substantive rule of law to be enforced by any tribunal competent to apply law generally to the parties. It went on to confide primary interpretation and application of its rules to a specific and specially constituted tribunal . . . . Congress evidently considered that centralized administration of specially designed procedures was necessary to obtain uniform application of its substantive rules and to avoid these diversities and conflicts likely to result from a variety of local procedures and attitudes toward labor controversies. . . . A multiplicity of tribunals and a diversity of procedures are quite as apt to produce incompatible or conflicting adjudications as are different rules of substantive law." Garner v. Teamsters Union, 346 U.S. 485, 490-491.

Consequently, as a general rule, neither state nor federal courts have jurisdiction over suits directly involving "activity [which] is arguably subject to § 7 or § 8 of the Act." San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S., at 245.

This pre-emption doctrine, however, has never been rigidly applied to cases where it could not fairly be inferred that Congress intended exclusive jurisdiction to lie with the NLRB. Congress itself has carved out exceptions to the Board's exclusive jurisdiction: Section 303 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, 61 Stat. 158, 29 U. S. C. § 187, expressly permits anyone injured by a violation of N. L. R. A. § 8 (b)(4) to recover damages in a federal court even though such unfair labor practices are also remediable by the Board; § 301 of that Act, 61 Stat. 156, 29 U. S. C. § 185, permits suits for breach of a collective

[ 386 U.S. Page 180]

     bargaining agreement regardless of whether the particular breach is also an unfair labor practice within the jurisdiction of the Board (see Smith v. Evening News Assn., 371 U.S. 195); and N.L. R. A. § 14, as amended by Title VII, § 701 (a) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, 73 Stat. 541, 29 U. S. C. § 164 (c), permits state agencies and courts to assume jurisdiction "over labor disputes over which the Board declines, pursuant to paragraph (1) of this subsection, to assert jurisdiction" (compare Guss v. Utah Labor Board, 353 U.S. 1).

In addition to these congressional exceptions, this Court has refused to hold state remedies pre-empted "where the activity regulated was a merely peripheral concern of the Labor Management Relations Act . . . . [or] touched interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility that, in the absence of compelling congressional direction, we could not infer that Congress has deprived the States of the power to act." San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S., at 243-244. See, e. g., Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, 383 U.S. 53 (libel); Automobile Workers v. Russell, 356 U.S. 634 (violence); International Assn. of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617 (wrongful expulsion from union membership); Allen-Bradley Local v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Board, 315 U.S. 740 (mass picketing). See also Hanna Mining Co. v. Marine Engineers Beneficial Assn., 382 U.S. 181. While these exceptions in no way undermine the vitality of the pre-emption rule where applicable, they demonstrate that the decision to preempt federal and state court jurisdiction over a given class of cases must depend upon the nature of the particular interests being asserted and the effect upon the administration of national labor policies of concurrent judicial and administrative remedies.

A primary justification for the pre-emption doctrine -- the need to avoid conflicting rules of substantive law

[ 386 U.S. Page 181]

     in the labor relations area and the desirability of leaving the development of such rules to the administrative agency created by Congress for that purpose -- is not applicable to cases involving alleged breaches of the union's duty of fair representation. The doctrine was judicially developed in Steele and its progeny, and suits alleging breach of the duty remained judicially cognizable long after the NLRB was given unfair labor practice jurisdiction over union activities by the L. M. R. A.*fn6 Moreover, when the Board declared in Miranda Fuel that a union's breach of its duty of fair representation would henceforth be treated as an unfair labor practice, the Board adopted and applied the doctrine as it had been developed by the federal courts. See 140 N. L. R. B., at 184-186. Finally, as the dissenting Board members in Miranda Fuel have pointed out, fair representation duty suits often require review of the substantive positions taken and policies pursued by a union in its negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement and in its handling of the grievance machinery; as these matters are not normally within the Board's unfair labor practice jurisdiction, it can be doubted whether the Board brings substantially greater expertise to bear on these problems than do the courts, which have been engaged in this type of review since the Steele decision.*fn7

In addition to the above considerations, the unique interests served by the duty of fair representation doctrine

[ 386 U.S. Page 182]

     have a profound effect, in our opinion, on the applicability of the pre-emption rule to this class of cases. The federal labor laws seek to promote industrial peace and the improvement of wages and working conditions by fostering a system of employee organization and collective bargaining. See N. L. R. A. § 1, as amended, 61 Stat. 136, 29 U. S. C. § 151. The collective bargaining system as encouraged by Congress and administered by the NLRB of necessity subordinates the interests of an individual employee to the collective interests of all employees in a bargaining unit. See, e. g., J. I. Case Co. v. Labor Board, 321 U.S. 332. This Court recognized in Steele that the congressional grant of power to a union to act as exclusive collective bargaining representative, with its corresponding reduction in the individual rights of the employees so represented, would raise grave constitutional problems if unions were free to exercise this power to further racial discrimination. 323 U.S., at 198-199. Since that landmark decision, the duty of fair representation has stood as a bulwark to prevent arbitrary union conduct against individuals stripped of traditional forms of redress by the provisions of federal labor law. Were we to hold, as petitioners and the Government urge, that the courts are foreclosed by the NLRB's Miranda Fuel decision from this traditional supervisory jurisdiction, the individual employee injured ...


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