Dole v. Local 427, Intern. Union of Elec., Radio and Mach. Workers, AFL-CIO

Decision Date18 January 1990
Docket NumberNo. 88-5467,AFL-CIO,88-5467
Citation894 F.2d 607
Parties133 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2362, 58 USLW 2455, 114 Lab.Cas. P 11,836 Elizabeth DOLE, 1 Secretary of Labor, United States Department of Labor, Appellant v. LOCAL 427, INTERNATIONAL UNION OF ELECTRICAL, RADIO AND MACHINE WORKERS,
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Scott R. McIntosh (argued), Leonard Shaitman, Appellate Staff, Civ. Div. Dept. of Justice, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Mark C. Rushfield (argued), Guazzo, Perelson, Rushfield & Guazzo, Clifton, N.J., for appellee.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, Chief Judge, and MANSMANN and GARTH, Circuit Judges.



This appeal arises from an action filed by the Secretary of Labor on behalf of the United States of America ("the Government") pursuant to sections 104 and 210 of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act ("LMRDA" or the "Act"), 29 U.S.C. Secs. 414 & 440 (1982). The Government sought to enjoin a local union from refusing to permit one of its members to review collective bargaining agreements between the union and employers other than her own. The district court granted the defendant union's motion for summary judgment and dismissed this action on the grounds that it was barred by the statute of limitations. In so doing, the district court imported the six months statute of limitations of Sec. 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") ("section 10(b)"), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 160(b) (1982), since section 104 of the LMRDA is silent as to any statute of limitations. We hold that no statute of limitations should apply to suits of this type brought by the Government under section 104 of the LMRDA.


The essential facts of this case are undisputed. In a letter dated June 18, 1986, Hortensia Colmenares, a member of Local 427, International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, AFL-CIO ("Local 427" or "the union"), requested a copy of the collective bargaining agreement entered into between Local 427 and her employer, Keene Corporation. In this letter, she also asked to review the collective bargaining agreements that Local 427 had entered into with employers other than Keene Corporation. Local 427, a local labor organization governed by the provisions of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. Secs. 401-531 (1982) represents approximately 60 different shops throughout New Jersey and New York City. Brock v. Local 427 Int'l Union of Elec. Radio & Mach. Workers, 682 F.Supp. 1315, 1317 (D.N.J.1988). On June 26, 1986, Ms. Colmenares presented a copy of the June 18th letter to the president of Local 427, Henry Annucci. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Colmenares received a copy of the most recent Local 427/Keene Corporation collective bargaining agreement. However, by a letter dated August 22, 1986, Local 427 informed Ms. Colmenares that it would not permit her to inspect its collective bargaining agreements with other employers. In explaining its refusal to permit review of these other agreements, the union asserted that Ms. Colmenares' request was a "fishing expedition" which threatened to reveal employers' confidential information "in a process which could expose them to non-union or other competition." Id. at 1317 n. 2. (quoting Letter dated August 22, 1986 of Cesar C. Gauzzo, counsel to Local 427, to Hortensia Colmenares).

Shortly after receiving this information, on September 8, 1986, Ms. Colmenares filed an official complaint with the Department of Labor. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor and counsel for the union attempted unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute through correspondence. However, at no time during these communications did Local 427 indicate that it might change its position in this matter.

On September 1, 1987, the Secretary of Labor, pursuant to her authority under section 210 of the LMRDA, 2 commenced this action in the district court. Id. at 1317. The Secretary of Labor filed for summary judgment on substantive grounds that are not before us now. The union filed for summary judgment both on substantive grounds and based on the assertion that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations. Id. The district court granted the defendant union's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the suit was time-barred and accordingly dismissed the plaintiff's suit. Id. This appeal followed.


In general, the structure of the LMRDA contemplates enforcement both by private citizens for alleged violations of Title I of the Act, 29 U.S.C. Secs. 411-415 (1982), and also by the Secretary of Labor for alleged violations of Title II of the Act, 29 U.S.C. Secs. 431-441. Brock v. Local 427, 682 F.Supp. at 1317-18. Section 104 of the LMDRA, the section at issue in the case before us now, provides both for private suits by union members and for suits brought by the Secretary of Labor. 3 Forline v. Helpers Local No. 42, 211 F.Supp. 315, 319 (E.D.Pa.1962). Congress thus conceived of Government suits as an integral part of the enforcement mechanism of section 104. Title I of the LMRDA makes no reference to a statute of limitations within which an action enforcing any of its sections must be brought.

The issue in this case is which statute of limitations, if any, is most appropriately applied to Title I of the LMRDA, and whether under that limitations period, the action filed by the Secretary is time-barred or timely. Because the district court dismissed the Secretary's claim as time-barred, the court had no occasion to rule on the substantive validity of the Secretary's claim. Brock v. Local 427, 682 F.Supp. at 1323. Accordingly, the statute of limitations question is the only issue before us now. We have plenary review of this issue of law.


The district court wrote without the guidance of Reed v. United Transp. Union, 488 U.S. 319, 109 S.Ct. 621, 102 L.Ed.2d 665 (1989), the most recent Supreme Court opinion to address the issue of which statute of limitations to apply to suits brought to enforce employees' Title I rights against their unions. The case before us was briefed and argued to the district court and this appellate court prior to the Supreme Court's decision in Reed. As the district court's decision to apply the six months' statute of limitations of Sec. 10(b) of the NLRA's prohibition of unfair labor practices is inconsistent with Reed, the district court is clearly incorrect under current law. 4 Since Reed, while vitiating the reasoning of the district court, dealt only with the appropriate statute of limitations for private actions brought under section 101(a)(2) of the LMRDA, 5 it does not control on the issue now before this court: what statute of limitations, if any, should be applied to section 104 of the LMRDA to govern Government suits brought for a public purpose. Past precedents dictate that no statute of limitations should be applied to section 104 suits brought by the Government to protect the public interest.

As a general matter, no statute of limitations will be applied in civil actions brought by the Government, unless Congress explicitly imposes such time limitations. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 132, 58 S.Ct. 785, 788-89, 82 L.Ed. 1224 (1938) 6; Glenn Electric Co., Inc. v. Donovan, 755 F.2d 1028, 1033 (3d Cir.1985) (citing the principle but declining to apply it in an action by the Department of Housing and Urban Development against a contractor). This principle, expressed in the maxim, nullum tempus occurrit regi (time does not run against the king) was settled as early as 1840 in United States v. Knight, 39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 301, 315, 10 L.Ed. 465 (1840). In that case, the court recited the general rule in England governing limitations running against the Crown.

[W]here an act of parliament is made for the public good, the advancement of religion and justice, and to prevent injury and wrong, the king shall not be bound by such act, though not particularly named therein. But where a statute is general, and thereby any prerogative, right, title or interest is divested or taken from the king, in such case he shall not be bound; unless that statute is made, by express words, to extend to him. It is a settled principle, that the king is not, ordinarily, barred, unless named by an act of limitations.

Id. at 315. The doctrine continues to have vitality on public policy grounds "that the public interest should not be prejudiced by the negligence of public officers, to whose care they are confided." Id. Accord Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Board of University and School Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 290, 103 S.Ct. 1811, 1821, 75 L.Ed.2d 840 (1983) (quoting the principle but declining to apply it to an action by a state against the federal Government); Costello v. United States, 365 U.S. 265, 281, 81 S.Ct. 534, 542-43, 5 L.Ed.2d 551 (1961) (where the Government sought to divest a naturalized citizen of his citizenship, laches and statute of limitations did not apply); Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 132, 58 S.Ct. at 788-89. (1938) (quoting the principle but declining to apply it to an action brought out of time by a foreign Government); United States v. Nashville, Co. & St. L. Ry. Co., 118 U.S. 120, 126, 6 S.Ct. 1006, 1008-09, 30 L.Ed. 81 (1886) (no statute of limitations applied when the Government held bonds in trust for public use).

Another line of authority extends this principle to include those situations where the Government sues to enforce public rights. In United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 416-17, 60 S.Ct. 1019, 1020-21, 84 L.Ed. 1283 (1940), where the Federal Housing Administrator filed a claim against an individual's estate, the Court held that the Government is not bound by a limitations period when suing in its Governmental capacity whether the action is filed in state or federal court. In Summerlin, the court reasoned that "[w]hen the United States becomes entitled to a claim, acting in its governmental capacity, and asserts its claim...

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