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Robinson v. Pan American World Airways Inc.

decided: November 18, 1985.


Interlocutory appeal from denial of defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint under the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., as untimely filed.

Feinberg, Chief Judge, Kaufman and Meskill, Circuit Judges.

Author: Feinberg

FEINBERG, Chief Judge:

The sole issue in this interlocutory appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, Robert W. Sweet, J., is whether, in light of DelCostello v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151, 76 L. Ed. 2d 476, 103 S. Ct. 2281 (1983), the six-month limitations period of section 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 29 U.S.C. § 160(b), should be "borrowed" to apply to a suit alleging discharge for pro-union activities, brought under section 2, Fourth of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. The district judge answered the question in the negative, and denied defendant Pan Am's motion to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint as untimely. The district judge certified, however, that his decision involved a controlling and unresolved question of law, appropriate for interlocutory review under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), and this court subsequently granted Pan Am leave to appeal. We now reverse the district court decision on this issue, but remand for consideration of whether Pan Am is estopped from relying on the six-month statute of limitations.


The factual background of this dispute is described fully in two opinions of the district court, reported at 606 F. Supp. 279 and 597 F. Supp. 1063, and we will not repeat it here. For our purposes it suffices to state that plaintiffs Donald Robinson, Richard Hill, Charles M. Adams, James Wolfanger, Karl Rahn and Ronald Fregara are former Pan Am employees who allege they were terminated due to their pro-union activities, in violation of section 2, Fourth of the RLA, 45 U.S.C. § 152.*fn1 Five of the plaintiffs were dismissed in July 1981 (the sixth was terminated in February 1982), during a period when the National Mediation Board (NMB) was considering an application by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to represent a unit of Pan Am employees that included most of the plaintiffs. The union's application was eventually dismissed, 9 NMB 229 (1982), and plaintiffs thereafter sought redress for their terminations by bringing this lawsuit. All the plaintiffs but one also allege that Pan Am violated its own personnel policies by failing to render decisions on grievances filed shortly after their dismissals.

Plaintiffs filed suit in June 1984, and Pan Am moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds of untimeliness.*fn2 Pan Am argued that, in the absence of a statutorily-mandated limitations period for claims based on section 2, Fourth, the court should borrow the six-month period of section 10(b) of the NLRA rather than the three-year period of New York C.P.L.R. § 214(2), which applies to a liability based upon a statute.*fn3 According to Pan Am, this result is compelled by DelCostello, in which the Supreme Court applied the six-month period of section 10(b) to duty of fair representation suits brought by employees against their employers and their unions. Acknowledging a "family resemblance" between unfair labor practice claims under the RLA and the NLRA, see DelCostello, 462 U.S. at 170, the district court nonetheless found this insufficient reason to extend DelCostello to this RLA suit. The court reasoned that application of the state limitations period here does not conflict with any important federal policies, and prejudices neither employer nor employee. 606 F. Supp. 279; 597 F. Supp. at 1068-69. For the reasons stated below, we disagree.


The Railway Labor Act establishes a scheme for resolution of labor disputes in the rail and air transportation industries.*fn4 Section 2, Fourth of the RLA prohibits employers from interfering with the rights of employees to unionize; section 2, Ninth authorizes the NMB to investigate representational disputes and hold elections; and section 2, Sixth mandates procedures for speedy resolution of contract disputes. Unlike the NLRA, however, the RLA does not establish any administrative mechanism for considering unfair labor practice charges brought by individual employees. Although section 2, Tenth authorizes the government to seek criminal sanctions against an employer who willfully violates certain sections of the RLA, including section 2, Fourth, this drastic enforcement mechanism has rarely been used. See United States v. Winston, 558 F.2d 105, 108 (2d Cir. 1977); 10 T. Kheel, Labor Law § 50.07[2], 50-51 -52 (1985). Rather, courts have inferred a private right of action by employees and permitted direct suit in federal court. Stepanischen v. Merchants Despatch Transportation Corp., 722 F.2d 922, 924-27 (1st Cir. 1983). The appropriate limitations period for such claims, however, is not settled, and the RLA provides no specific guidance.

When a federal statute fails to specify a limitations period within which federal claims may be brought, the courts usually borrow the most analogous period under state law. DelCostello, 462 U.S. at 158; United Auto Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 383 U.S. 696, 703-05, 16 L. Ed. 2d 192, 86 S. Ct. 1107 (1966). The selection of a limitations period is an exercise of the court's discretionary power to fashion appropriate measures to carry out the intent of the federal legislation. Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U.S. 392, 395, 90 L. Ed. 743, 66 S. Ct. 582 (1946). Where the state procedural rule conflicts with the substantive purposes of the federal cause of action, however, courts have not hesitated to deviate from this rule of thumb. See, e.g., Occidental Life Insurance Co. v. EEOC, 432 U.S. 355, 367, 53 L. Ed. 2d 402, 97 S. Ct. 2447 (1977) (state limitations period rejected for Title VII claim brought by EEOC).

In DelCostello, the Court sought an appropriate limitations period for a duty of fair representation claim, which is a hybrid action because it combines an employee's contract claim against an employer under section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act with the employee's claim against the union under the NLRA for inadequate representation, frequently in connection with the union's handling of a grievance or arbitration proceeding. The Court rejected several proposed state limitations periods in favor of one borrowed from federal labor law that it considered more consonant with the remedial purposes of the cause of action. The Court found the usual 30 to 90-day time frames for vacating arbitration awards too short "to provide an aggrieved employee with a satisfactory opportunity to vindicate his rights," id. 462 U.S. at 166, and malpractice limitations periods, varying from three to ten years, too long to serve the "relatively rapid final resolution of labor disputes favored by federal law," id. at 168. The Court borrowed, instead, the six-month period of section 10(b) of the NLRA, stating that

when a rule from elsewhere in federal law clearly provides a closer analogy than available state statutes, and when the federal policies at stake and the practicalities of litigation make that rule a significantly more appropriate vehicle for interstitial lawmaking, we have not hesitated to turn away from state law.

Id. at 172. The Court also noted the "family resemblance" between claims for breach of the duty of fair representation and other unfair labor practices, id. at 170, and the fact that the section 10(b) period was "actually designed to accommodate a balance of interests very similar to that at stake" in the hybrid section 301/fair representation suit, id. at 169.

DelCostello did not, however, create an all-embracing new rule. In language relied upon heavily by plaintiffs here and by the ...

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