383 U.S. 696 (1966), 387, International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &

Docket Nº:No. 387
Citation:383 U.S. 696, 86 S.Ct. 1107, 16 L.Ed.2d 192
Party Name:International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &
Case Date:March 24, 1966
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 696

383 U.S. 696 (1966)

86 S.Ct. 1107, 16 L.Ed.2d 192

International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &

No. 387

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1966

Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW),

AFL-CIO v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp.

Argued January 27, 1966




Petitioner union and respondent company were parties to a collective bargaining agreement which required payment of accumulated vacation pay to qualified employees upon termination of their employment. In June, 1957, the company discharged employees covered by the agreement without such payment. An action brought in the Indiana courts to recover the amounts allegedly due was dismissed in 1960 on the ground that the complaint was insufficient under state law. Almost four years later, and almost seven years after the employees' discharge, the union brought this action in the Federal District Court under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947. The Act contains no time limitation upon the bringing of an action under § 301. The District Court viewed the action as based partly on the collective bargaining agreement and partly on the oral contract of each employee, and held that Indiana, in such case, would apply its six-year statute of limitations governing contracts not in writing. The complaint was accordingly dismissed as untimely, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. A union may properly sue under § 301 to recover wages or vacation pay claimed by its members pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. Smith v. Evening News Assn., 371 U.S. 195, 198. Pp. 699-700.

2. The timeliness of a suit under § 301, there being no governing federal provision, is to be determined, as a matter of federal law, by reference to the appropriate state statute of limitations. Pp. 701-704.

(a) The fact that Congress did not provide a uniform limitations provision for § 301 suits does not require that the courts invent one. P. 703.

(b) State statutes have repeatedly supplied the periods of limitation for federal causes of action when federal legislation has been silent. Pp. 703-704.

Page 697

3. The characterization of this suit as one not exclusively based on a written contract, and the application of the Indiana six-year statute of limitations, do not conflict with federal labor policy. Pp. 705-707.

4. The statute of limitations was not tolled in this case by the prior litigation. Burnett v. New York Central R. Co., 380 U.S. 424, distinguished. Pp. 707-708.

346 F.2d 242, affirmed.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, confers jurisdiction upon the federal district courts over suits upon collective bargaining contracts.1 Nowhere

Page 698

in the Act, however, is there a provision for any time limitation upon the bringing of an action under § 301. The questions presented by this case arise because of the absence of such a provision.

The petitioner union and the respondent company were parties to a collective bargaining contract within the purview of § 301. The contract contained a section governing vacations. One clause in this section dealt with payment of accumulated vacation pay, by providing:

Employees who qualified for a vacation in the previous year and whose employment is terminated for any reason before the vacation is taken will be paid that vacation at time of termination.

On June 1, 1957, prior to the expiration of the contract, the company terminated the employment of employees covered by the agreement, but it did not pay them any accumulated vacation pay. Since that date, two lawsuits have been brought to recover amounts allegedly due. The first was a class action in early 1958, brought against the company in an Indiana court, but the court ruled that such

Page 699

an action was impermissible under Indiana law. In an attempt to remedy this pleading defect, the former employees assigned their vacation pay claims to a union representative, who then filed an amended complaint, but this form of action, too, was held improper under Indiana law. Thereafter, by further amended complaints, the employees sought to reform and reinstitute the class action, but, once again, the trial court held the complaint insufficient as a matter of state law. The court dismissed the suit in June, 1960, and the judgment of dismissal was affirmed on [86 S.Ct. 1110] appeal. Johnson v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 134 Ind. 477, 189 N.E.2d 592.

Almost four years after the dismissal of that lawsuit by the Indiana trial court, and almost seven years after the employees had left the company, the union filed the present action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. On the company's motion, the trial court dismissed the complaint, concluding that the suit was barred by a six-year Indiana statute of limitations. The court regarded this action as based partly upon the written collective bargaining agreement and partly upon the oral employment contract each employee had made, and it held that Indiana would apply to such a hybrid action its six-year statute governing contracts not in writing. Ind.Stat.Ann. § 2-601 (1965 Supp.). 235 F.Supp. 183. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, 346 F.2d 242, and we granted certiorari, 382 U.S. 808.

We note at the outset that this action was properly brought by the union under § 301. There is no merit to the contention that a union may not sue to recover wages or vacation pay claimed by its members pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining contract. Such a suit is among those "[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization" that § 301 was designed to permit. This conclusion is unimpaired

Page 700

by the fact that each worker's claim may also depend upon the existence of his individual contract of employment. See J. I. Case Co. v. Labor Bard, 321 U.S. 332, 335-336. In Smith v. Evening News Assn., 371 U.S. 195, we rejected the view, once held for varying reasons by a majority of this Court, Association of Westinghouse Salaried Employees v. Westinghouse Corp., 348 U.S. 437,

that § 301 did not give the . . . courts jurisdiction over a suit brought by a union to enforce employee rights . . . characterized as . . . arising "from separate hiring contracts between the employer and each employee."

371 U.S. at 198. Although the Smith case was brought by an individual worker, there is every reason to recognize the union's standing to vindicate employee rights under a contract the union obtained. Such recognition is fully consistent with the language of § 301(b): "Any . . . labor organization may sue . . . in behalf of the employees whom it represents in the courts of the United States." 61 Stat. 156, 29 U.S.C. § 185(b) (1964 ed.).2 And indeed, the union's standing to vindicate employee rights under § 301 implements no more than the established doctrine that the union's role in the collective bargaining process does not end with the making of the contract.3

Page 701

Since this suit was properly brought under § 301, the question of its timeliness is squarely presented. It is clearly a federal question, for, in § 301 suits, the applicable law is "federal law, [86 S.Ct. 1111] which the courts must fashion from the policy of our national labor laws." Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills, 353 U.S. 448, 456. Relying upon that statement and upon the coordinate principle that "incompatible doctrines of local law must give way to principles of federal labor law," Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95, 102, the union contends that this suit cannot be barred by a statute of limitations enacted by a State. We are urged, instead, to devise a uniform time limitation to close the statutory gap left by Congress. But the teaching of our cases does not require so bald a form of judicial innovation. Lincoln Mills instructs that, in fashioning federal law, the "range of judicial inventiveness will be determined by the nature of the problem." 353 U.S. at 457. We do not question that there are problems so vital to the implementation of federal labor policy that they will command a high degree of inventiveness from the courts. The problem presented here, however, is not of that nature.

It is true that, if state limitations provisions govern § 301 suits, these suits will lack a uniform standard of timeliness. It is also true that the subject matter of § 301 is "peculiarly one that calls for uniform law." Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co., supra, at 103. Our cases have defined the need for uniformity, however, in terms that are largely inapplicable here:

The possibility that individual contract terms might have different meanings under [two systems of law] would inevitably exert a disruptive influence upon both the negotiation and administration of collective

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agreements. Because neither party could be certain of the rights which it had obtained or conceded, the process of negotiating an agreement would be made immeasurably more difficult by the necessity of trying to formulate contract provisions in such a way as to contain the same meaning under two or more systems of law which might someday be invoked in enforcing the contract. Once the collective bargain was made, the possibility of conflicting substantive interpretation under competing legal systems would tend to stimulate and prolong disputes as to its interpretation. Indeed, the existence of possibly conflicting legal concepts might substantially impede the parties' willingness to agree to contract terms providing for final arbitral or judicial resolution of disputes.

. . . The ordering and adjusting of competing interests through a process of free and voluntary collective bargaining is the keystone of the federal scheme to promote industrial peace....

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