Great Northern Ry. Co. v. National Railroad Adjust. Bd.

Decision Date16 February 1970
Docket NumberNo. 17526.,17526.
Citation422 F.2d 1187
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Martin M. Lucente, William P. Richmond, Ronald J. Sklar, Chicago, Ill., for plaintiff-appellant; Sidley & Austin, Chicago, Ill., of counsel.

Burke Williamson, John F. Morrissey, Jack A. Williamson, Chicago, Ill., for defendants-appellees Labor Members; Adams, Williamson & Turney, Chicago, Ill., of counsel.

Before CASTLE, Chief Judge, HASTINGS, Senior Circuit Judge, and FAIRCHILD, Circuit Judge.

HASTINGS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff Great Northern Railway Company filed the instant action in the district court for the Northern District of Illinois. Named as defendants were the National Railroad Adjustment Board, First Division, and the individual members and referee.1 Plaintiff sought a decree ordering the members of the First Division of the National Railroad Adjustment Board to proceed to interpret the Division's Awards 20841 through 20847 sustaining claims on behalf of certain employees of Great Northern. The order was sought on the ground that the Division had failed to perform its statutory duty to make such an interpretation upon request and had thus denied Great Northern its rights under Section 3 First (m) of the Railway Labor Act. 45 U.S.C.A. § 153 First (m).

The district court denied Great Northern's motion for summary judgment and, on its own motion, dismissed the complaint for lack of jurisdiction and for reasons of comity with the Minnesota district court. The Great Northern appeals. Only the labor members of the Division contest this appeal. The carrier members have not appeared or filed briefs. We reverse.

At various times prior to March 7, 1966, certain employees of Great Northern, represented by the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen (Union), filed claims for additional compensation based on train delays. When these claims could not be disposed of through collective bargaining grievance procedures, the Union filed claims with the First Division of the National Railroad Adjustment Board pursuant to provisions of the National Railway Act. 45 U.S.C.A. § 153 First (i).

The First Division consists of five labor appointed members and five carrier appointed members. Anticipating frequent deadlocks, the Act provides for the appointment of a neutral referee when an impasse is reached. 45 U.S.C. A. § 153 First (l). Such an impasse developed in the instant case and a referee was appointed. On March 7, 1966, the Division, with the carrier members dissenting, issued seven awards sustaining the claims of employees identified in the submissions before it. In addition, pursuant to a 1955 collective bargaining agreement between Great Northern and the Union, the Division made the awards applicable to "all subsequent analogous claims" and added that "whether there are any such analogous claims may readily be ascertained from Carrier's records."

Great Northern paid the claims of the identified employees. However, a dispute arose between the parties as to the meaning of the phrase "all subsequent analogous claims." The Union submitted a partial list of claims it felt were covered by that phrase. Great Northern took the position that the list included claims that had expired under the terms of the labor agreements before the awards were rendered; instances in which claims had not been processed through the steps described in the labor agreement; and claims which had been disposed of by a negotiated agreement of withdrawal before the awards were rendered. These claims, Great Northern contended, were not within the scope of the awards. Discussion continued for nearly two years.

The Railway Labor Act provides that a suit to enforce an order applicable to an award must be filed within two years from the time the cause of action accrues. 45 U.S.C.A. § 153 First (r). On April 2, 1968, five days before the limitation period expired, the Union, on behalf of itself and the persons for whose benefit the seven awards were made, brought suit in the United States District Court for Minnesota, pursuant to Section 3 First (p) of the Act, seeking enforcement of the awards against Great Northern. Since Great Northern had already paid the identified claimants, this action pertained only to "subsequent analogous claims."

After the Minnesota enforcement suit was filed, Great Northern, on May 10, 1968, filed a request with the First Division for interpretation of the seven awards pursuant to Section 3 First (m) of the Railway Labor Act. 45 U.S.C.A. § 153 First (m).

Great Northern then moved for summary judgment in the Minnesota court on the ground that interpretation of the awards and the contract on which they were based was a matter exclusively for the Division. It cited its request for interpretation in support of this motion.

On September 12, 1968, the Minnesota court denied the motion for summary judgment, saying, in part:

"The Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen has sought enforcement of these awards under Section Three, First (p) of the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 153 First (p) (Supp.1967). Subsequent submission of a request for clarification to the Board cannot, in itself, divest this Court of the jurisdiction specifically granted by statute.
"Furthermore, this Court is not satisfied that there is no `genuine issue as to any material fact.\' See F.R.C.P. 56(c). Specifically, the Court thinks that it may be possible to find claims which are covered by the awards given and which, as is stated in Award 20841, may be `readily ascertained from the Carrier\'s records.\' Of course, the Court does not now rule that there are such permissible and enforceable claims, but merely decides that the respondent has not at present established an adequate basis for a motion for summary judgment."

The court then set a time for a pre-trial conference at which it would consider Great Northern's objections to certain interrogatories. So far as we are advised, the Minnesota litigation has proceeded no further.

On October 21, 1968, the carrier members of the First Division proposed two resolutions under which the Division was to proceed to interpret the awards as requested by Great Northern.2 The five labor members voted against these resolutions so that neither secured the majority vote required by the Act. 45 U.S.C.A. § 153 First (n). No further action has been taken by the First Division.3

On November 6, 1968, Great Northern filed the instant action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois seeking to compel the First Division to interpret its awards as required by Section 3 First (m) of the Act. The Illinois court dismissed the complaint, sua sponte, saying in part:

"The court * * * is of the opinion that this court is without jurisdiction to hear this cause for the reason that plaintiff\'s exclusive remedy herein with respect to the award of the National Railroad Adjustment Board is found under the provisions of Section 3, First (p) and (q) of the Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. § 153, First (p) and (q).
"Further, a suit concerning this same subject matter and parties was already on file in the United States District Court for Minnesota. That court had acquired jurisdiction of the parties and the subject matter and it is still there pending. Any action by this court would not be in keeping with the rule of the comity between courts."4

In brief, the issues for our review are 1) whether the Illinois court had jurisdiction to compel the First Division to interpret its awards; 2) whether, if it did, such jurisdiction was defeated by the prior filing in the Minnesota court of the enforcement action; and 3) whether, if there was jurisdiction and it was not defeated, the court should have declined to exercise it for reasons of comity.

In relevant part, Section 3 First (m) states:

"* * * In case a dispute arises involving an interpretation of the award, the division of the Board upon request of either party shall interpret the award in the light of the dispute."

We find nothing ambiguous in these words. They clearly provide that the Division shall interpret its awards upon request.

It is undisputed here that Great Northern, as a party to an award of the Board, has requested an interpretation. We may conclude from this that Great Northern has a right to an interpretation by the Division which the Division has no discretion or authority under the statute to deny.

This right has, nevertheless, been nullified by the refusal of the five labor members to proceed with the interpretation. In such a case it is well established that a court may intervene to prevent the nullification, by administrative action, of rights granted by Congress. In Switchmen's Union v. National Mediation Board, 320 U.S. 297, 300, 64 S. Ct. 95, 97, 88 L.Ed. 61 (1943), the Court said: "If the absence of jurisdiction of the federal courts meant a sacrifice or obliteration of a right which Congress had created, the inference would be strong that Congress intended the statutory provisions governing the general jurisdiction of those courts to control." Citing Texas & New Orleans R. Co. v. Brotherhood of Clerks, 281 U.S. 548, 50 S.Ct. 427, 74 L.Ed. 1034 (1930), and Virginian Ry. Co. v. System Federation, 300 U.S. 515, 57 S.Ct. 592, 81 L.Ed. 789 (1937). Although the Court found this rationale inapplicable to the case before it, several courts have applied it to sustain the jurisdiction of district courts to order the Adjustment Board to perform its statutory duties.

For example, in Brotherhood of R. R. Trainmen v. Swan, 7 Cir., 214 F.2d 56 (1954), when the First Division became deadlocked over the form of an order to reopen certain awards, the union brought an action to compel it to reopen and decide the cases. We held the Division had a clear statutory duty to reopen the cases and upheld...

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