364 U.S. 642 (1961), 48, System Federation v. Wright

Docket Nº:No. 48
Citation:364 U.S. 642, 81 S.Ct. 368, 5 L.Ed.2d 349
Party Name:System Federation v. Wright
Case Date:January 16, 1961
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 642

364 U.S. 642 (1961)

81 S.Ct. 368, 5 L.Ed.2d 349

System Federation



No. 48

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 16, 1961

Argued December 5, 1960




In 1945, when the Railway Labor Act prohibited union shop agreements between railroads and labor unions, nonunion employees of a railroad brought a suit against the railroad and certain unions of its employees which resulted in a consent decree forbidding the defendants to discriminate against nonunion employees because of their refusal to join unions. After the Act was amended in 1951 so as to permit union shop agreements between railroads and labor unions, the petitioner unions moved that the decree be modified so as not to prohibit the defendants from entering into such agreements. The District Court, which had retained jurisdiction of the suit, denied the motion.

Held: it erred in doing so. Pp. 643-653.

(a) It would have been an abuse of discretion to deny modification of the injunction had it not resulted from a consent decree, since a change in the law had expressly made lawful what had theretofore been forbidden. Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Co., 18 How. 421. Pp. 646-650.

(b) A different conclusion is not required by the fact that the injunction was incorporated in a consent decree, since the decree was a judicial act, and not a mere contract between the parties. Pp. 650-651.

(c) It was the Railway Labor Act, and only incidentally the parties, that the District Court served in entering the consent decree; and that Court must be free to continue to further the objectives of the Act after its provisions have been amended. Pp. 651-653.

272 F.2d 56, reversed.

Page 643

HARLAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

By a complaint filed on July 16, 1945, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, 28 nonunion employees of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad began an action for declaratory relief, an injunction, and damages against the railroad and a number of unions representing its employees. Particularly relevant to the complaint were those provisions of the fourth and fifth paragraphs of § 2 of the Railway Labor Act,1 which make it

unlawful for any carrier to interfere in any way with the organization of its employees, or to use the funds of the carrier in maintaining or assisting or contributing to any labor organization, labor representative, or other agency of collective bargaining, or in performing any work therefor, or to influence or coerce employees in an effort to induce them to join or remain or not to join or remain members of any labor organization . . .

and which forbid any carrier from requiring "any person seeking employment to sign any contract or agreement promising to join . . . a labor organization. . . ." Also relied upon was the duty of the exclusive bargaining agent to represent fairly and without discrimination all members of the class represented. See Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., 323 U.S. 192. The factual allegations set forth a pattern of discriminations effected by the railroad and the defendant unions against nonunion employees.

Page 644

By a settlement agreement dated December 1, 1945, the 28 plaintiffs released the railroad and union defendants from all claims2 or actions then accrued

in consideration of the sum of $5,000.00 this day paid to the undersigned . . . and the consent of said defendants to the entry of a decree in said action, a copy of which is attached hereto. . . .

The attached decree was adopted by the District Court on December 7, 1945. After detailing and then enjoining a number of specific discriminations on the basis of union status, the decree provided that the defendants

are further enjoined, in the application of the provisions of the regularly adopted bargaining agreements in effect between the defendant Railroad and the defendant Unions, or that may be hereafter in effect between the defendant Railroad and the defendant Unions in accordance with the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, from discriminating against the plaintiffs and the classes represented by them in this action by reason of or on account of the refusal of said employes to join or retain their membership in any of defendant labor organizations, or any labor organization. . . .

The District Court, 165 F.Supp. 443, 445, retained jurisdiction over the matter "for the purpose of entering such further orders as may be deemed necessary or proper."

In 1951, the Railway Labor Act was amended to permit, under certain circumstances, a contract requiring a union [81 S.Ct. 370] shop.3 In order to avail themselves of the newly granted statutory privilege, in 1957, the petitioners filed in the District Court a motion under Rule 60(b) of the Federal

Page 645

Rules of Civil Procedure,4 asking for a sufficient modification of the consent decree to make clear that it

shall have no prospective application to prohibit defendants, or any of them, from negotiating, entering into, or applying and enforcing, any agreement or agreements authorized by Section 2, Eleventh, of the Railway Labor Act, as amended January 10, 1951.

The motion, which was opposed by the railroad and its suing employees (respondents here), was denied after a hearing at which was presented unrebutted evidence of assaults, destruction of property, and various other malicious acts directed by members of the union at any employee (union or nonunion) who had worked during a 58-day strike in 1955. The District Court acknowledged its authority to modify the consent decree, but declined to do so, primarily out of regard for the fact that the unions (petitioners here) had consented by the decree not to have a union shop then or in the future, an undertaking which the District Court considered was not unlawful either before or after the 1951 amendments.5 The court stated:

It is to be remembered that the provisions of the Railway Labor Act made illegal a union shop in 1945, when the injunction was agreed upon. Hence, it was then unnecessary for the railroad and the

Page 646

to agree, as they did, that the non-union members should not then be required to join or maintain membership in any of their craft unions as a condition precedent to employment. The law so prohibited, Section 152, Fourth and Fifth, Title 45, United States Code Annotated, Railway Labor Act. The railroad and unions went further to provide by their agreement that no such requirement of union membership should thereafter be in effect in any bargaining agreement in accordance with the provisions of the Railway Labor Act. The 1951 amendment to the Act did no more than make negotiations for a union shop permissive, Railway Employees' Dept. v. Hanson, supra. The amendment did not nullify the agreement or the injunction. It did not prohibit an agreement between the railroad and the unions that a union shop should not exist. Hence, the Court leaves the parties as they agreed to be and to remain.

165 F.Supp. 443, 449. Though making it clear that evidence of continued union hostility against nonunion employees was not decisive, the District Court gave some weight to the administrative difficulty of preventing unlawful discriminations against nonunion employees that might be facilitated if there were a union shop. The Sixth Circuit affirmed "for the reasons set forth in the opinion of Chief Judge Shelbourne" in the District Court. 272 F.2d 56, 58. We granted certiorari because of the importance of the issues involved. 362 U.S. 948.

[81 S.Ct. 371] At the outset, it should be noted that the power of the District Court to modify this decree is not drawn in question. That proposition indeed could not well be disputed. See Pennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Co., 18 How. 421; United States v. Swift & Co., 286 U.S. 106;

Page 647

Chrysler Corp. v. United States, 316 U.S. 556. In the Swift case, Mr. Justice Cardozo put the matter thus, 286 U.S. at 114:

We are not doubtful of the power of a court of equity to modify an injunction in adaptation to changed conditions though it was entered by consent. . . . Power to modify the decree was reserved by its very terms, and so, from the beginning, went hand in hand with its restraints. If the reservation had been omitted, power there still would be by force of principles inherent in the jurisdiction of the chancery. A continuing decree of injunction directed to events to come is subject always to adaptation as events may shape the need. Ladner v. Siegel, 298 Pa. 487, 494, 495.

There is also no dispute but that a sound judicial discretion may call for the modification of the terms of an injunctive decree if the circumstances, whether of law or fact, obtaining at the time of its issuance have changed, or new ones have since arisen. The source of the power to modify is, of course, the fact that an injunction often requires continuing supervision by the issuing court, and always a continuing willingness to apply its powers and processes on behalf of the party who obtained that equitable relief. Firmness and stability must no doubt be attributed to continuing injunctive relief based on adjudicated facts and law, and neither the plaintiff nor the court should be subjected to the unnecessary burden of reestablishing what has once been decided. Nevertheless, the court cannot be required to disregard significant changes in law or facts if it is "satisfied that what it was been doing has been turned through changing circumstances into an instrument of wrong." United States v. Swift & Co., supra, at 114-115. A balance must thus be struck between the policies of res judicata and the right

Page 648

of the court to apply modified measures to changed circumstances.

Where there is such a balance of imponderables, there must be wide discretion in the...

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