International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Foust, No. 78-38

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMARSHALL
Citation442 U.S. 42,99 S.Ct. 2121,60 L.Ed.2d 698
Decision Date29 May 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-38
PartiesINTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS et al., Petitioners, v. Leroy FOUST

442 U.S. 42
99 S.Ct. 2121
60 L.Ed.2d 698
INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS et al., Petitioners,

v.

Leroy FOUST.

No. 78-38.
Argued Feb. 26, 1979.
Decided May 29, 1979.
Syllabus

ondent was discharged by his employer, the Union Pacific Railroad Co., for failing properly to request an extension of his medical leave of absence. Petitioner union filed a grievance on respondent's behalf two days after the time for submission had expired. The National Railroad Adjustment Board denied respondent's claim on the ground that the union had not complied with the filing deadline. Respondent then brought an unfair representation suit against the union. A jury found for respondent, awarding him actual and punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed in most respects, but remanded the case for consideration of whether the punitive damages award was excessive.

Held : The Railway Labor Act does not permit an employee to recover punitive damages for a union's breach of its duty of fair representation in processing an employee's grievance against his employer for wrongful discharge. Pp. 46-52.

(a) Since Congress has not specified what remedies are available in unfair representation actions, this Court's function is to implement a remedial scheme that will best effectuate the purposes of the Railway Labor Act, recognizing that the overarching legislative goal is to facilitate collective bargaining and to achieve industrial peace. P. 47-48.

(b) The fundamental purpose of unfair representation suits is to compensate for injuries caused by violations of employees' rights. To permit punitive damages, which, by definition, provide monetary relief in excess of actual loss, could impair the financial stability of unions and unsettle the careful balance of individual and collective interests which this Court has struck in the unfair representation area. Additionally, the prospect of punitive damages could curtail the broad discretion afforded unions in handling grievances and thereby inhibit the proper functioning of the collective-bargaining system. Inflicting such risks on employees, whose welfare depends on the strength of their unions, is too great a price for whatever deterrent effect punitive damages may have. Pp. 48-52.

10 Cir., 572 F.2d 710, reversed in part.

Laurence J. Cohen, Washington, D. C., for petitioners.

Terry W. Mackey, Cheyenne, Wyo., for respondent.

Page 43

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

This action arises from the failure of petitioner union properly to process respondent's grievance alleging wrongful discharge by his employer. The question presented is whether the Railway Labor Act 1 permits an employee to recover punitive damages for such a breach of a union's duty of fair representation.

I

Respondent, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), was injured in March 1970 while working for the Union Pacific Railroad Co. (Union Pacific). He received a medical leave of absence through December 22, 1970. The collective-bargaining agreement between the union and the company required that employees either request an extension before their leave expired or return to work as scheduled. Accordingly, respondent sought to renew his leave in late December. Correspondence between Union Pacific and respondent's attorney, however, revealed that the company had not received a doctor's statement supporting respondent's request. Notwithstanding Union Pacific's written assurance on January 25, 1971, that it would await arrival of this document before reviewing respondent's

Page 44

case, respondent was discharged on February 3 because, in the company's view, he had not properly requested an extension.

After respondent's attorney failed to persuade Union Pacific to reconsider its decision, he wrote the IBEW District Chairman, D. F. Jones, requesting that the union initiate grievance proceedings on respondent's behalf pursuant to Rule 21 of the collective-bargaining agreement.2 The letter was dated March 26, and was received by Jones on March 27, 52 days after the dismissal. Although Jones was aware that Rule 21 required presentation of grievances "within 60 days from the date of the occurrence on which the claim . . . is based," see n. 2, supra, and that this deadline was imminent, he did not immediately prepare a grievance letter. Rather, he contacted the IBEW General Chairman, Leo Wisniski, who insisted that respondent personally request in writing the union's assistance. Wisniski drafted a letter stating that the union could not "handle" the claim until such an authorization was received. App. to Brief for Respondent 8a. Instead of telephoning respondent or sending the letter directly to him, Wisniski mailed the letter to Jones, who then signed and forwarded it to respondent on April 5, 61 days after the discharge. Without awaiting the requested written authorization, Jones filed respondent's claim with Union Pacific on April 6, two days after the time for submission had expired. The claim form had been prepared by Wisniski in Omaha, Neb., sent to Jones in Rawlins, Wyo., and then mailed by Jones to the railroad in Omaha.

Both Union Pacific and the National Railroad Adjustment Board denied respondent's claim on the ground that IBEW had not complied with the 60-day filing deadline. Respondent then brought this suit against the union and several of

Page 45

its officers.3 He alleged that by filing the grievance out of time, the union had breached its duty of fair representation, which resulted in dismissal of his wrongful discharge claim. A jury found for respondent, awarding him $40,000 actual damages and $75,000 punitive damages, and the District Court accepted the jury's award. No. C 74-50B (Wyo., May 17, 1976).

The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment in most respects, but remanded the case for consideration of whether the punitive damages award was excessive. 572 F.2d 710 (CA10 1978).4 It rejected the suggestion of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that punitive damages are impermissible in unfair representation suits,5 and declined to adopt the Eighth Circuit's standard, which allows punitive damages only when union officers display malice toward the employee.6 Rather, following the Fourth Circuit, the Court of Appeals ruled that a punitive award is appropriate if a

Page 46

union has acted wantonly or in reckless disregard of an employee's rights. See Harrison v. United Transportation Union, 530 F.2d 558, 563-564 (CA4 1975), cert. denied, 425 U.S. 958, 96 S.Ct. 1739, 48 L.Ed.2d 203 (1976).7

We granted certiorari to resolve this conflict among the Courts of Appeals as to what if any circumstances justify assessing punitive damages against a union that breaches its duty of fair representation. 439 U.S. 892, 99 S.Ct. 248, 58 L.Ed.2d 237 (1978).

II

This Court first recognized the statutory duty of fair representation in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., 323 U.S. 192, 65 S.Ct. 226, 89 L.Ed. 173 (1944), a case arising under the Railway Labor Act. Steele held that when Congress empowered unions to bargain exclusively for all employees in a particular bargaining unit, and thereby subordinated individual interests to the interests of the unit as a whole, it imposed on unions a correlative duty "inseparable from the power of representation" to exercise that authority fairly. Id., at 202-204, 65 S.Ct., at 233; see Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335, 342, 84 S.Ct. 363, 367, 11 L.Ed.2d 370 (1964); Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 182, 87 S.Ct. 903 (1967); Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., 424 U.S. 554, 564, 96 S.Ct. 1048, 1056, 47 L.Ed.2d 231, 17 L.Ed.2d 842 (1976).8 The fair representation doctrine thus serves

Page 47

as a "bulwark to prevent arbitrary union conduct against individuals stripped of traditional forms of redress by the provisions of federal labor law." Vaca v. Sipes, supra, 386 U.S., at 182, 87 S.Ct., at 912. Under the doctrine, a union must represent fairly the interests of all bargaining-unit members during the negotiation, administration, and enforcement of collective-bargaining agreements. See, e. g., Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957); Humphrey v. Moore, supra, 375 U.S., at 342, 84 S.Ct., at 367; Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., supra, 424 U.S., at 563-567, 96 S.Ct., at 1055-1057. In particular, a union breaches its duty when its conduct is "arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith," as, for example, when it "arbitrarily ignore[s] a meritorious grievance or process[es] it in [a] perfunctory fashion." Vaca v. Sipes, supra, 386 U.S., at 190, 191, 87 S.Ct., at 917.

The right to bring unfair representation actions is judicially "implied from the statute and the policy which it has adopted," Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., supra, 323 U.S., at 204, 65 S.Ct., at 232, and Congress has not specified what remedies are available in these suits.9 Our function, therefore, is to implement a remedial scheme that will best effectuate the purposes of the Railway Labor Act, recognizing that the overarching legislative goal is to facilitate collective bargaining and to achieve industrial peace. See 323 U.S., at 204, 65 S.Ct., at 232; Textile Workers v.

Page 48

Lincoln Mills, 353 U.S. 448, 456-457, 77 S.Ct. 912, 917-918, 1 L.Ed.2d 972 (1957); Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 759, 81 S.Ct. 1784, 1795, 6 L.Ed.2d 1141 (1961); cf. Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363, 63 S.Ct. 573, 87 L.Ed. 838 (1943). Whether awarding punitive damages would comport with this national labor policy is the issue on which the instant case turns.

III

Punitive damages "are not compensation for injury. Instead, they are private fines levied by civil juries to punish reprehensible conduct and to deter its future occurrence." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3012, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974).10 In respondent's...

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356 practice notes
  • Goodman v. Lukens Steel Company United Steelworkers of America v. Goodman, AFL-CIO-CLC
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 19, 1987
    ...97 L.Ed. 1048 (1953). For these reasons unions are afforded broad discretion in the handling of grievances. Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 51, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2127, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979); Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 191-194, 87 S.Ct. 903, 917-918, 17 L.Ed.2d 842 (1967). Union mem......
  • In re No. Dist. of Cal." Dalkon Shield" IUD Products, No. C-80-2213 SW.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Northern District of California
    • November 5, 1981
    ...2748, 69 L.Ed.2d 616 (1981) (municipalities are immune from punitive damages); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 48-50, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2125-27, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979) (Labor Policy); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 349-50, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3011-1......
  • Lewis v. Local Union No. 100 of Laborers' Intern. Union of North America, AFL-CIO, No. 83-3095
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • December 18, 1984
    ...v. Robbins, --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. 1844, 1851 n. 22, 80 L.Ed.2d 366 (1984); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 46 n. 8, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2125 n. 8, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979); Freeman v. Local Union No. 135, 746 F.2d 1316 at 1320 (7th Cir.1984); Ranieri v. Uni......
  • Adams v. Murakami
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • August 15, 1991
    ...a windfall...." (Rosener v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 740, 750, 168 Cal.Rptr. 237; Electrical Workers v. Foust (1979) 442 U.S. 42, 50, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2126, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 [also referring to punitive damages as "windfall recoveries"].) "[I]t [813 P.2d 1358] is indeed an anom......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
356 cases
  • Goodman v. Lukens Steel Company United Steelworkers of America v. Goodman, AFL-CIO-CLC
    • United States
    • United States Supreme Court
    • June 19, 1987
    ...97 L.Ed. 1048 (1953). For these reasons unions are afforded broad discretion in the handling of grievances. Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 51, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2127, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979); Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 191-194, 87 S.Ct. 903, 917-918, 17 L.Ed.2d 842 (1967). Union mem......
  • In re No. Dist. of Cal." Dalkon Shield" IUD Products, No. C-80-2213 SW.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Northern District of California
    • November 5, 1981
    ...2748, 69 L.Ed.2d 616 (1981) (municipalities are immune from punitive damages); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 48-50, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2125-27, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979) (Labor Policy); Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 349-50, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 3011-1......
  • Lewis v. Local Union No. 100 of Laborers' Intern. Union of North America, AFL-CIO, No. 83-3095
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • December 18, 1984
    ...v. Robbins, --- U.S. ----, 104 S.Ct. 1844, 1851 n. 22, 80 L.Ed.2d 366 (1984); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 46 n. 8, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2125 n. 8, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 (1979); Freeman v. Local Union No. 135, 746 F.2d 1316 at 1320 (7th Cir.1984); Ranieri v. Uni......
  • Adams v. Murakami
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • August 15, 1991
    ...a windfall...." (Rosener v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1980) 110 Cal.App.3d 740, 750, 168 Cal.Rptr. 237; Electrical Workers v. Foust (1979) 442 U.S. 42, 50, 99 S.Ct. 2121, 2126, 60 L.Ed.2d 698 [also referring to punitive damages as "windfall recoveries"].) "[I]t [813 P.2d 1358] is indeed an anom......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Race, Labor, and the Twentieth-Century American State
    • United States
    • Politics & Society Nbr. 32-4, December 2004
    • December 1, 2004
    ...Inflicting thisrisk on employees, whose welfare depends on the strength of their union, is simply toogreat a price.” IBEW v. Foust, 442 U.S. 42, 51 (1979).112. Feller, “Memorandum to Walter Reuther,” 3-4.113. See notes 21, 22, 28, and 29 for references to Randolph and Rustin and Wilkins.Als......

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