495 U.S. 362 (1990), 89-322, United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Rawson,

Docket Nº:No. 89-322
Citation:495 U.S. 362, 110 S.Ct. 1904, 109 L.Ed.2d 362, 58 U.S.L.W. 4556
Party Name:United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Rawson,
Case Date:May 14, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court

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495 U.S. 362 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 1904, 109 L.Ed.2d 362, 58 U.S.L.W. 4556

United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC



No. 89-322

United States Supreme Court

May 14, 1990

Argued March 26, 1990



Respondents, deceased miners' survivors, filed a state law wrongful death action in Idaho state court against petitioner Union, the miners' exclusive bargaining agent, alleging that the miners' deaths in an underground fire were proximately caused by the Union's fraudulent and negligent acts in connection with mine safety inspections conducted by its representatives pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement with the mine's operator. On remand from a State Supreme Court decision [110 S.Ct. 1906] that the claims were not preempted by federal labor law, the trial court granted summary judgment for the Union. It found that the record was devoid of evidence supporting the fraud claim, and urged the State Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that the negligence claim was not preempted. The State Supreme Court upheld the trial court's summary judgment on the fraud claim, but again concluded that respondents' negligence claim was not preempted. Distinguishing this Court's decision in Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U.S. 202 -- which held that a state law tort action against an employer may be preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, if the duty to the employee that was violated by the tort is created by a collective bargaining agreement and without existence independent of the agreement -- the court found that the instant agreement's provisions did "not require interpretation, . . . but rather . . . determine[d] only the nature and scope of the Union's duty." This Court vacated the State Supreme Court's judgment and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Electrical Workers v. Hechler, 481 U.S. 851, which extended Allis-Chalmers to a tort suit by an employee against her union. On remand, the State Supreme Court distinguished Hechler on the ground that, there, the alleged duty of care arose from the collective bargaining agreement, whereas, here, the Union's duty to perform the inspection reasonably arose from the fact of the inspection itself rather than the fact that the provision for the Union's participation in the inspection was contained in the labor contract. Since it was conceded that the Union undertook to inspect, the court noted, the sole issue was whether that inspection was negligent under state tort law.

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1. Respondents' tort claim is preempted by § 301. The claim cannot be described as independent of the collective bargaining agreement, since the Union's representatives were participating in the inspection process pursuant to that agreement's provisions. Thus, if the Union failed to perform a duty in connection with the inspection, it was a duty arising out of the agreement signed by the Union as the miners' bargaining agent, not a duty of reasonable care owed to every person in society. Preemption by federal law cannot be avoided by characterizing the Union's negligence as a state law tort. Pp. 368-372.

2. Respondents may not maintain a § 301 suit against the Union. Pp. 372-376.

(a) Mere negligence, even in the enforcement of a collective bargaining agreement, does not state a claim for breach of the duty of fair representation, which is a purposely limited check on the arbitrary exercise of union power. While a union may assume a responsibility toward employees by accepting a duty of care through a collective bargaining agreement, Hechler, supra, at 860, if an employee claims that a union owes him a more far-reaching duty, he must be able to point to language in the agreement specifically indicating an intent to create obligations enforceable against the union by the individual employees. Nothing in the agreement at issue suggests that it creates such obligations, since the pertinent part of the agreement consists of agreements between the Union and the employer, and is enforceable only by them. Pp. 372-375.

(b) Moreover, under traditional principles of contract interpretation, respondents have no claim, for, as third-party beneficiaries, they have no greater rights in the agreement than does the promisee, the employer. Here, the employer has no enforceable right as promisee. The agreement provisions respondents rely on are not promises made by the Union to the employer. Rather, the limited surrender of the employer's exclusive authority over mine safety is a concession made by the employer to the Union. P. 375.

[110 S.Ct. 1907] (c) Although respondents' claim that the Union had committed fraud on the membership in violation of state law might implicate the duty of fair representation, respondents did not cross-petition for review of the State Supreme Court's holding that summary judgment was properly entered on this claim. P. 376.

115 Idaho 785, 770 P.2d 794, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J.,

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filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 376.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

[110 S.Ct. 1905] Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case because the decisions of the Supreme Court of Idaho, holding that petitioner may be liable under state law for the negligent inspection of a mine where respondents' decedents worked, raised important questions about the operation of federal and state law in defining the duties of a labor union acting as a collective bargaining agent.


This dispute arises out of an underground fire that occurred on May 2, 1972, at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho, and caused the deaths of 91 miners. Respondents, the survivors of four of the deceased miners, filed this state law wrongful death action in Idaho state court. Their complaint alleged that the miners' deaths were proximately caused by fraudulent and negligent acts of petitioner United Steelworkers of America (Union), the exclusive bargaining representative of the miners working at the Sunshine Mine. As to the negligence claim, the complaint specifically alleged that the Union

undertook to act as accident prevention representative and enforcer of an agreement negotiated between [sic] [the Union] on behalf of the deceased miners,

App. 53-54, and

undertook to provide representatives who inspected

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[the Sunshine Mine] and pretended to enforce the contractual accident prevention clauses,

id. at 54. Respondents' answers to interrogatories subsequently made clear that their suit was based on contentions that the Union had, through a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the operator of the Sunshine Mine, caused to be established a joint management/labor safety committee intended to exert influence on management on mine safety measures; that members of the safety committee designated by the Union had been inadequately trained on mine safety issues; and that the Union, through its representatives on the safety committee, had negligently performed inspections of the mine that it had promised to conduct, failing to uncover obvious and discoverable deficiencies. Id. at 82-83.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the Union, accepting the Union's argument that "federal law has preempted the field of union representation and its obligation to its membership," App. to Pet. for Cert. 164a, and that "[n]egligent performance of [a union's] contractual duties does not state a claim under federal law for breach of fair representation," id. at 163a. The Supreme Court of Idaho reversed. Dunbar v. United Steelworkers of America, 100 Idaho 523, 602 P.2d 21 (1979). In the view of the Supreme Court of Idaho, although federal law unquestionably imposed on the Union a duty of fair representation of the miners, respondents' claims were "not necessarily based on the violation of the duty of fair representation, and such is not the only duty owed by a union to its members." Id. at 526, 602 P.2d at 24. Three of the five justices concurred specially to emphasize that

the precise nature of the legal issues raised by [respondents'] wrongful death action is not entirely clear at the present procedural posture of the case,

and that "a final decision whether the wrongful death action . . . is preempted . . . must therefore await a full factual development." Id. at 547, 602 P.2d at 25 (Bakes, J., specially concurring).

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We denied the Union's petition for certiorari. [110 S.Ct. 1908] Steelworkers v. Dunbar, 446 U.S. 983 (1980).

After extensive discovery, the trial court again granted summary judgment for the Union. App. to Pet. for Cert. 89a-106a. As to respondents' fraud claim, the court concluded that the record was devoid of evidence supporting the contentions that the Union had made misrepresentations of fact, that the Union had intended to defraud the miners, or that the miners had relied on Union representations. Id. at 96a. On the negligence count, the trial court first noted that, in its view, respondents' claims centered on the collective bargaining contract between the Union and the Sunshine Mine, especially Article IX of the agreement, which established the joint labor/management safety committee. Id. at 90a-91a. The trial court urged the State Supreme Court to reconsider its conclusion that respondents' state law negligence claim was not preempted by federal labor law, reasoning that

[respondents] are complaining about the manner in which the Union carried out the collective bargaining agreement, essentially saying the Union advisory committee should have done more,


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