401 U.S. 576 (1971), 434, United Transportation Union v. State Bar of Michigan

Docket Nº:No. 434
Citation:401 U.S. 576, 91 S.Ct. 1076, 28 L.Ed.2d 339
Party Name:United Transportation Union v. State Bar of Michigan
Case Date:April 05, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 576

401 U.S. 576 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1076, 28 L.Ed.2d 339

United Transportation Union

v.

State Bar of Michigan

No. 434

United States Supreme Court

April 5, 1971

Argued January 20, 1971

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MICHIGAN

Syllabus

Respondent brought this action to enjoin the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (later merged into petitioner) from engaging in group legal activity for the stated purpose of assisting workers in filing damage suits under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA). Respondent charged that the Union had recommended to its Michigan members selected Chicago attorneys whose fees would not exceed 25% of the amount recovered. The Union's answer admitted, inter alia, that it had engaged in the practice of protecting its members against large fees and incompetent counsel and that Union members were reimbursed for transporting injured members to the legal counsel's offices. On the basis of the pleadings and one witness' testimony that a large number of Michigan FELA claimants were represented by the Union's Chicago counsel, the trial court issued an injunction. While that decision was on appeal, this Court decided Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia State Bar, 377 U.S. 1, and the Michigan Supreme Court thereafter remanded the case to the trial court for further consideration. Following respondent's motion for judgment, that court, adopting the decree entered against the Union in Trainmen after this Court's remand, enjoined the Union from "giving or furnishing legal advice to its members or their families"; furnishing attorneys the names of injured members or information relating to their injuries; accepting compensation for the solicitation of legal employment for any lawyer; and from controlling the lawyer's fees. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: The injunction issued against the Union in this case violated its right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to engage in group activity to enable its members to meet the costs of legal representation and otherwise to secure meaningful access to the courts, Trainmen, supra; United Mine Worker v. Illinois State Bar Assn., 389 U.S. 217; NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415. Pp. 579-586.

383 Mich. 201, 174 N.W.2d 811, reversed.

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. HARLAN,

Page 577

J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 586. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 600. STEWART, J., took no part in the decision of the case.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Michigan State Bar brought this action in January, 1959, to enjoin the members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen1 from engaging in activities undertaken for the stated purpose of assisting their fellow workers, their widows and families, to protect themselves from excessive fees at the hands of incompetent attorneys in suits for damages under the Federal Employers' Liability Act.2 The complaint charged, as factors relevant to the cause of action, that the Union recommended selected attorneys to its members and their families, that it secured a commitment from those attorneys that the maximum fee charged would not exceed 25% of the recovery, and that it recommended Chicago lawyers to represent Michigan claimants. The State Bar's complaint appears to be a plea for court protection of unlimited

Page 578

legal fees. The Union's answers admitted that it had engaged in the practice of protecting members against large fees and incompetent counsel; that, since 1930, it had recommended, with respect to FELA claims, that injured member employees, and their families, consult attorneys designated by the Union as "Legal Counsel"; that, prior to March, 1959, it had informed the injured members and their families that the legal counsel would not charge in excess of 25% of any recovery; and that Union representatives were reimbursed for transporting injured employees, or their families, to the legal counsel offices.

The only evidence introduced in this case was the testimony of one employee of the Association of American Railroads in 1961 that, from 1953 through 1960, a large number of Michigan FELA claimants were represented by the Union's designated Chicago legal counsel. Based on this evidence and the Union's admissions set out above, the state trial court, in 1962, issued an order enjoining the Union's activities on the ground that they violated the state statute making it a misdemeanor to "solicit" damage suits against railroads.3 The Union appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, but, before the [91 S.Ct. 1079] case was argued on appeal, this Court handed down its decision in Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen v. Virginia State Bar, 377 U.S. 1 (1964), involving a similar injunction secured by the Virginia State Bar against the Union. We held in that case that the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, petition, and assembly give

Page 579

railroad workers the right to cooperate in helping and advising one another in asserting their rights under the FELA. While not deciding every question that possibly could be raised, our opinion left no doubt that workers have a right under the First Amendment to act collectively to secure good, honest lawyers to assert their claims against railroads.

Acknowledging our decision in Trainmen, the Michigan Supreme Court remanded the instant case to the state trial court with permission for amendment of the complaint "to seek, if it be so advised, relief not inconsistent with the Supreme Court's said opinion." 374 Mich. 152, 155, 132 N.W.2d 78, 79. After remand, the State Bar made a motion for further proceedings. That motion was heard on February 5, 1965, at which time the Bar declined to amend its complaint. For reasons not explained in the record, the case lingered in the trial court until May 24, 1968. On that date, after a motion for judgment by the State Bar and arguments on the motion, the trial court adopted verbatim the injunction entered in the Virginia state courts after our remand in Trainmen.

In affirming the trial court decree, the material part of which is set out below,4 the Michigan Supreme Court gave our holding in Trainmen the narrowest possible

Page 580

reading,5 focusing only on the specific literal language of the injunctive provisions challenged in that case, rather than the broad range of union activities held to be protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, the Michigan court erroneously restricted our holding in United Mine Workers v. Illinois State Bar Assn., 389 U.S. 217 (1967), to "the operative portion" of the Illinois decree prohibiting any financial connection between the attorney and the Union. The Michigan Supreme Court failed to follow our decisions in Trainmen, United Mine Workers, and NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963), upholding the First Amendment principle that groups can unite to assert their legal rights as effectively and economically as practicable. When applied, as it must be, to the Union's activities reflected in the record of this case, the First Amendment forbids the restraints imposed by the injunction here under review for the following, among other reasons.

First. The decree approved by the Michigan Supreme Court enjoins the Union from "giving or furnishing legal advice to its members or their families." [91 S.Ct. 1080] Given its broadest meaning, this provision would bar the Union's members, officers, agents, or attorneys from giving any kind of advice or counsel to an injured worker or his family concerning his FELA claim. In Trainmen, we upheld the common sense proposition that such activity is protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, the

Page 581

plain meaning of this particular injunctive provision would emphatically deny the right of the Union to employ counsel to represent its members, a right explicitly upheld in United Mine Workers6 and NAACP v. Button.

We cannot accept the restricted interpretation of this provision urged by the State Bar, and accepted by our Brother HARLAN, that it only prohibits the Union or its members themselves from "practicing law." The record is devoid of any evidence or allegation of such conduct on the part of the Union or its members. A decree must relate specifically and exclusively to the pleadings and proof. If not so related, the provision, because of its vagueness, will jeopardize the exercise of protected freedoms. This injunction, like a criminal statute, prohibits conduct under fear of punishment. Therefore, we look at the injunction as we look at a statute, and if, upon its face, it abridges rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, it should be struck down. Our statement in NAACP v. Button concerning the statute there in question is equally applicable to the injunction now before us:

[W]e cannot assume that, in its subsequent enforcement, ambiguities will be resolved in favor of adequate protection of First Amendment rights.

371 U.S. at 438.

Second. The decree also enjoins the Union from furnishing to any attorney the names of injured members or information relating to their injuries. The investigation of accidents by Union staff for purposes of gathering evidence to assist the injured worker or his family in asserting FELA claims was part of the Union practice

Page 582

upheld in Trainmen. 377 U.S. at 4 n. 8. It would seem at least a little strange now to hold that the Union cannot communicate that information to the injured member's attorney.7

Third. A provision of the decree enjoins the members of the Union from

accepting or receiving compensation of any kind, directly or indirectly, for the solicitation of...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP