Laborers Health and Welfare Trust Fund For Northern California v. Advanced Lightweight Concrete Co Inc, 85-2079

Decision Date23 February 1988
Docket NumberNo. 85-2079,85-2079
Citation484 U.S. 539,108 S.Ct. 830,98 L.Ed.2d 936
PartiesLABORERS HEALTH AND WELFARE TRUST FUND FOR NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, et al., Petitioners v. ADVANCED LIGHTWEIGHT CONCRETE CO., INC
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

An employer may have a contractual duty under a collective-bargaining agreement to make contributions to a pension fund during the agreement's term, and may also have a duty under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to continue making such contributions after the agreement's expiration while negotiations for a new contract are in process. Section 515 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) obligates an employer to pay to a multiemployer plan contributions that are required "under the terms of the plan or under the terms of a collectively bargained agreement." Section 502(g)(2) of ERISA authorizes the multiemployer plan's trustees to enforce such liability by bringing an action in federal district court for the unpaid contributions, prejudgment interest thereon, liquidated damages, reasonable attorney's fees and costs, and other appropriate relief. Respondent company was a party to two multiemployer collective-bargaining agreements that required monthly contributions to eight employee benefit plans. Respondent made the contributions until the agreements' expiration date, but made no contributions thereafter. The plans' trustees (hereinafter petitioners) brought suit against respondent to collect the postcontract contributions, alleging that respondent's actions constituted a breach of its duty to bargain in good faith under § 8(a)(5) of the NLRA, and that the Federal District Court had jurisdiction under §§ 502(g)(2) and 515 of ERISA. The court granted respondent summary judgment on the grounds that § 515 does not apply to an employer's obligation under § 8(a)(5) of the NLRA, and that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has exclusive jurisdiction over petitioners' claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The remedy provided in §§ 515 and 502(g)(2) of ERISA is limited to contractual, "promised contributions," and does not confer jurisdiction on district courts to determine whether an employer's unilateral decision to refuse to make postcontract contributions violates the NLRA. Pp. 545-553.

(a) The text and the legislative history of §§ 515 and 502(g)(2) clearly require this result. Both § 515 and the legislative history plainly describe the employer's contractual obligation to make contributions but omit any reference to the noncontractual obligation imposed by the NLRA. Conversely, in defining the contribution obligation of an employer wishing to withdraw from a multiemployer plan, § 4212(a) of ERISA unambiguously includes both the employer's contractual obligations and its NLRA obligations, thereby demonstrating that Congress was aware of the two different sources of an employer's duty to contribute to covered plans. Pp. 545-549.

(b) Petitioners' policy arguments for broadly construing § 515 to include postcontract delinquencies are rejected in light of Congress' plain intent, as discussed above, and because countervailing policy arguments make it highly unlikely that the limited reach of the statute is the consequence of inadvertence rather than deliberate choice. Petitioners' first argument—that denying district courts jurisdiction of postcontract delinquency collection actions leaves a "gap" in the enforcement scheme—is unpersuasive, since there are indications that it may not be a problem of serious magnitude; since the issues that must be decided in a postcontract delinquency dispute are more complex than those that are presented in a simple collection action; and since the resolution of the type of question presented is usually left to the NLRB. Petitioners' second argument—that the remedies available in an NLRB proceeding are less effective than those in an ERISA action—may be correct, but is ultimately unavailing, since the asserted defects in NLRB remedies are characteristic of all unfair labor practice proceedings. The NLRA duty to make postcontract contributions is simply a consequence of a broader duty that was created to protect the collective-bargaining process, and does not provide ERISA plan trustees with a unique and preferred procedure for obtaining redress. Pp. 550-553.

779 F.2d 497 (CA9 1985), affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except KENNEDY, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Michael B. Roger, San Francisco, Cal., for petitioners.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D.C., for U.S., as amicus curiae supporting the petitioners, by special leave of Court.

Mark S. Ross, San Francisco, Cal., for respondent.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

A company that is a party to a collective-bargaining agreement may have a contractual duty to make contributions to a pension fund during the term of the agreement and, in addition, may have a duty under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to continue making such contributions after the expiration of the contract and while negotiations for a new contract are in process. In 1980, Congress amended the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to provide trustees of multiemployer benefit plans with an effective federal remedy to collect delinquent contributions. The question presented in this case is whether that remedy encompasses actions based on an alleged breach of the employer's statutory duty as well as those based on an alleged breach of contract. We agree with the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the remedy is limited to the collection of "promised contributions."

I

Prior to 1983, respondent was a member of the Associated General Contractors of California and a party to two multi-employer collective-bargaining agreements negotiated on its behalf by that association.1 The agreements included provisions requiring respondent to make monthly contributions to eight different employee benefit plans.2 The collective-bargaining agreements, which were executed in 1980, had an expiration date of June 15, 1983.

On April 1, 1983, respondent notified both unions that it had terminated the association's authority to bargain on its behalf, that it would not be bound by either master agreement (or any successor agreement) after the June 15, 1983, expiration date, and that it was prepared to negotiate with the unions independently. Respondent continued to contribute to the eight trust funds until June 15, 1983, but has made no contributions since that date.

In December 1983, the trustees of the eight plans (petitioners) 3 brought suit in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California against respondent to collect contributions for the period after June 15, 1983. Petitioners allege that respondent's unilateral decision to change the terms and conditions of employment by discontinuing its contributions constituted a breach of its duty to bargain in good faith and violated § 8(a)(5) of the NLRA. 61 Stat. 141, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(5). The complaints alleged that the federal court had jurisdiction under §§ 502(g)(2) and 515 of ERISA.4

Respondent's answer to the complaint challenged the District Court's jurisdiction and also denied that respondent had any statutory duty to make contributions to the funds because its negotiations with the unions had reached an "impasse." 5 The "impasse" issue has never been resolved because the District Court granted a motion for summary judgment based on two other grounds: That § 515 of ERISA does not apply to an employer's obligations under § 8(a)(5) of the NLRA; and that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has exclusive jurisdiction over petitioners' claims.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. 779 F.2d 497 (CA9 1985). It necessarily assumed that petitioner could prove that respondent's postcontract refusal to contribute to the funds was an unfair labor practice.6 It held, however, that the claims should be resolved by the NLRB rather than by a federal district court. After examining the text and the legislative history of the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980 (MPPAA), the Court concluded:

"We find no persuasive evidence in either the plain words or legislative history of ERISA or the MPPAA that Congress intended section 515 to be an exception to the general rule of NLRB preemption for that narrow category of suits seeking recovery of unpaid contributions accrued during the period between contract expiration and impasse." Id., at 505.7

We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 1083, 107 S.Ct. 1283, 94 L.Ed.2d 142 (1987), and now affirm.

II

In its 1980 amendments to ERISA, Congress responded to two concerns that are relevant to the question presented by this case. It was primarily concerned about the burden placed upon the remaining contributors to a multiemployer fund when one or more of them withdraw.8 In response to this concern Congress enacted an elaborate provision imposing "withdrawal liability" on such withdrawing employers.9 That liability arises when an employer ceases to have an "obligation to contribute" to the plan.10 That term is defined for the purposes of the withdrawal liability portion of the statute in language that unambiguously includes both the employer's contractual obligations and any obligation imposed by the NLRA.11 That definition is significant because it demonstrates that Congress was aware of the two different sources of an employer's duty to contribute to covered plans.

Congress was also concerned about the problem that had arisen because a substantial number of employers had failed to make their "promised contributions" on a regular and timely basis.12 Sections 515 and 502(g)(2) of ERISA, the provisions at issue in this case, were enacted in response to that concern. The text of § 515 plainly describes the employer's contractual obligation to make contributions but omits any reference...

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