386 U.S. 171 (1967), 114, Vaca v. Sipes

Docket Nº:No. 114
Citation:386 U.S. 171, 87 S.Ct. 903, 17 L.Ed.2d 842
Party Name:Vaca v. Sipes
Case Date:February 27, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 171

386 U.S. 171 (1967)

87 S.Ct. 903, 17 L.Ed.2d 842

Vaca

v.

Sipes

No. 114

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 27, 1967

Argued November 17, 1966

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MISSOURI

Syllabus

Petitioners, union officials, were sued in a state court by a union member who alleged wrongful discharge by his employer in violation of the collective bargaining agreement and the union's arbitrary refusal to take his grievance to arbitration under the fifth and final step of the bargaining agreement's grievance procedures. The employee, whose duties required strenuous activity, was discharged on the ground of poor health. During the fourth grievance step, the union sent the employee to a physician for a complete examination. The report was unfavorable to the employee, and the union decided not to take the grievance to arbitration. After a jury verdict for the employee, the trial judge set aside the verdict on the ground that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction over the controversy. The Kansas City Court of Appeals affirmed, but the Missouri Supreme Court reversed and ordered the jury's verdict reinstated.

Held:

1. Since the union's duty, as exclusive agent, fairly to represent all members of a designated unit is based on federal statutes, federal law governs the employee's cause of action for breach of that duty. Pp. 176-177.

2. Although the NLRB has recently held that a union's breach of its statutory duty of fair representation is an unfair labor practice under § 8(b) of the National Labor Relations Act, it does not follow that the broad preemption doctrine defined in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, holding that the NLRB has exclusive jurisdiction over activity arguably subject to § 8 of the Act, is applicable thereto. Pp. 177-188.

(a) The preemption doctrine has not been rigidly applied where it could not be fairly inferred that Congress intended exclusive jurisdiction to lie with the NLRB. Pp. 179-180.

(b) The preemption rule has not been applied where the activity regulated was merely a peripheral concern of the Labor Management Relations Act. P. 180.

(c) The doctrine of fair representation, which protects individuals against arbitrary union conduct, might be jeopardized by the NLRB's failure to act in certain cases if the preemption

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doctrine were applied to oust the courts of their traditional jurisdiction to curb arbitrary union conduct. Pp. 181-183.

(d) As a practical matter, in an employee's suit against his employer for breach of contract under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, the employee may well find it necessary to prove a breach of duty by his union, a facet of the case which does not destroy the court's jurisdiction, even if the employee joins the union as a defendant. That being so, the result should be no different if the employee sues the employer and the union in separate actions. Pp. 183-187.

(e) Where a breach of duty by the union and a breach of contract by the employer are proven in a § 301 breach of duty action, the court must fashion an appropriate remedy against both defendants. Pp. 187-188.

3. A union breaches its duty of fair representation when its conduct toward a member of the designated unit is arbitrary, discriminatory or in bad faith, but it does not breach that duty merely because it settles a grievance short of arbitration, and the Missouri Supreme Court erred in upholding the jury's verdict solely on the ground that the evidence supported the employee's claim of wrongful discharge. Pp. 190-193.

4. As a matter of federal law, the evidence does not support a verdict that the union breached its duty, as the employee, who had no absolute right to have his grievance arbitrated, failed to prove arbitrary or bad faith conduct by the union in processing his grievance. Pp. 193-195.

5. The claimed damages, which were primarily those suffered as a result of the employer's alleged breach of contract, should not have been all charged to the union, and, if liability were found, it should have been apportioned between the employer and the union according to the damages caused by the fault of each. Pp. 195-198.

397 S.W.2d 658, reversed.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

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 [87 S.Ct. 908] Workers1 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

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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,2 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

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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 [87 S.Ct. 909] collective bargaining agreement.3 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

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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, 1964.4

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

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