Nat'l Labor Relations Bd. v. Constellium Rolled Prods. Ravenswood, LLC

Decision Date05 August 2022
Docket Number20-2140
Citation43 F.4th 395
Parties NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, Petitioner, v. CONSTELLIUM ROLLED PRODUCTS RAVENSWOOD, LLC, Respondent. Gilbert Charles Dickey, Court-Assigned Amicus Counsel.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Gilbert Charles Dickey, MCGUIREWOODS, LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Court-Assigned Amicus Counsel. Gregoire Frederic Sauter, NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, Washington, D.C., for Petitioner. Dallas Floyd Kratzer III, STEPTOE & JOHNSON PLLC, Columbus, Ohio, for Respondent. ON BRIEF: Jennifer A. Abruzzo, General Counsel, Peter Sung Ohr, Deputy General Counsel, Ruth E. Burdick, Deputy Associate General Counsel, David Habenstreit, Assistant General Counsel, Amy H. Ginn, Supervisory Attorney, NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, Washington, D.C., for Petitioner. Anne L. Doherty, MCGUIREWOODS LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Court-Assigned Amicus Counsel.


Dismissed by published opinion. Judge Richardson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Quattlebaum joined. Judge Harris wrote a separate opinion, dissenting.

RICHARDSON, Circuit Judge:

The National Labor Relations Board petitions this Court to enforce its order imposing obligations on an employer. The charged employer, Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood, LLC, consented in a stipulated settlement agreement to the enforcement of the order, skipping a process of agency prosecution and adjudication. Constellium agreed to a factual statement, waived any defenses, and now dutifully agrees that this Court should enter a judgment against it. We questioned our jurisdiction, concerned that this petition does not present a case or controversy fit for judicial resolution because the parties lack adverseness. We now hold that we lack jurisdiction to exercise judicial power when it would have no real consequences for the parties and would only rubberstamp an agreement the parties memorialized in writing and consummated before ever arriving on a federal court's doorstep. So the petition must be dismissed.

I. Background

Constellium Rolled Products Ravenswood employs members of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, Local 5668 ("United Steelworkers"). When a labor dispute boiled over, United Steelworkers filed four charges with the Board alleging that Constellium committed unfair labor practices. In 2019 and 2020, United Steelworkers requested information from Constellium that it believed would be relevant to collective bargaining—surveillance footage from a dock at the plant, the number of outside contractors working on various projects, and written agreements about those outside contractors, among other things. United Steelworkers says that Constellium refused to provide the requested information. Believing the allegations had merit, the Board's General Counsel issued an agency complaint against Constellium for violating the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151, et seq. And Constellium answered the complaint. Typically, the parties would proceed to a trial before an administrative law judge, and eventually an appeal to the Board.

But rather than proceed through agency adjudication, Constellium and United Steelworkers decided to settle their labor dispute. The parties entered a Formal Settlement Stipulation. By signing the agreement, Constellium effectively withdrew its answer to the complaint before the Board and agreed to stipulated facts—that it had wrongly withheld the security footage, the number of contractors, contracting agreements, and so on. The Stipulation also included proposed terms for a Board order. The Formal Settlement Stipulation was "subject to the approval of the Board" and would "not become effective until the Board has approved it." J.A. 8. Constellium agreed, upon entry of the Board's order, to "immediately comply with the provisions of the order." J.A. 8. Constellium also agreed that when the Board sought a judgment in federal court enforcing its order, Constellium would waive all defenses and consent to the entry of that judgment.

The Board approved the Formal Settlement Stipulation and issued an order reflecting its terms. A week later the Board petitioned this Court under 29 U.S.C. § 160(e) to enter a consent judgment against Constellium reflecting the order's terms.1 In its petition to this Court the Board did not argue that Constellium had violated—or threatened to violate—the terms of the Board's order. Instead, it asserted that it was "entitled to enforcement because Respondent has expressly consented to this judgment in a stipulation that Respondent entered into during the proceedings before the Board." Appl. for Enforcement of Order of NLRB Upon Stipulation of Parties for Consent J. 1, ECF No. 2-1. Constellium responded by following through on its promise, stating in a one-sentence response that "it consents to the entry of judgment and enforcement of the Board's order." Respondent's Answer to NLRB's Enforcement Appl. 1, ECF No. 9. So the parties together, hand-in-hand, ask this Court to enter a judgment binding Constellium to the promises it made in the settlement—without disagreement or a violation of the Board's order.2

II. Discussion

When concerns about our jurisdiction arise, we must zealously ensure that we do not exercise judicial power outside the Constitution's bounds. Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ. , 411 F.3d 474, 480 (4th Cir. 2005). "No action of the parties can confer subject-matter jurisdiction upon a federal court, and ordinary principles of consent, waiver, and estoppel do not apply." Id. (cleaned up). Likewise, Congress cannot extend the judicial power to matters that are neither cases nor controversies. Raines v. Byrd , 521 U.S. 811, 820 n.3, 117 S.Ct. 2312, 138 L.Ed.2d 849 (1997). The Board petitioned this Court for a consent judgment against Constellium that would enforce the same terms as the Board's consent order. We questioned whether we have the power to grant its request.

Under our Constitution, "[t]he judicial power" extends only to "Cases" and "Controversies." U.S. Const. art. III, § 2.3 This limitation cabins federal courts to "the proper—and properly limited—role of the courts in a democratic society." Allen v. Wright , 468 U.S. 737, 750, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984). And it ensures that federal courts only exercise power over "those disputes which are appropriately resolved through the judicial process." Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife , 504 U.S. 555, 560, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). Unlike the "legislative Powers" or the "executive Power," U.S. Const. arts. I & II, our Power "is legitimate only in the last resort, and as a necessity in the determination of real, earnest, and vital controversy between individuals," Chi. & Grand Trunk Ry. v. Wellman , 143 U.S. 339, 345, 12 S.Ct. 400, 36 L.Ed. 176 (1892).

A case or controversy's hallmark has long been "the existence of present or possible adverse parties, whose contentions are submitted to the court for adjudication." Muskrat v. United States , 219 U.S. 346, 357, 31 S.Ct. 250, 55 L.Ed. 246 (1911). That means "there must be an actual controversy, and adverse interests" between the parties. Lord v. Veazie , 49 U.S. (8 How.) 251, 255, 12 L.Ed. 1067 (1850). Although adverseness is an abstract concept that defies straightforward definition, typical adverseness is easy enough to describe: It is where one party "asserts its right" and the other party "is resisting." Old Colony Tr. Co. v. Comm'r , 279 U.S. 716, 724, 49 S.Ct. 499, 73 L.Ed. 918 (1929). Classic adverseness is the push and pull of parties with opposing interests who offer disagreements to the court.4

This case is not classically adverse. The parties agree about everything before this court, and there will be none of the push and pull of typical adverseness. And despite Constellium's capitulation, it does not clearly lack adverseness as a feigned or collusive case or one brought by "fraud or trickery." Chi. & Grand Trunk Ry. , 143 U.S. at 344, 12 S.Ct. 400.5 So we must dig deeper.

The parties before the court need not disagree about everything to be adverse enough to capture our jurisdiction. Id. at 345–46, 12 S.Ct. 400 ; Pope v. United States , 323 U.S. 1, 11–12, 65 S.Ct. 16, 89 L.Ed. 3 (1944). For example, parties may agree on liability but dispute the damages owed. At one time, though, agreement about both the merits and the remedy deprived courts of Article III adverseness. Moore v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ. , 402 U.S. 47, 47–48, 91 S.Ct. 1292, 28 L.Ed.2d 590 (1971) (finding "no case or controversy within the meaning of Art. III" where both parties agreed the law was constitutional and required setting aside a district court order). But now, in at least some circumstances, the parties can apparently agree about essentially everything—both the merits of the legal arguments and the appropriate relief—and still be legally adverse, so long as they retain adverse interests in the litigation's outcome. See United States v. Windsor , 570 U.S. 744, 756–59, 133 S.Ct. 2675, 186 L.Ed.2d 808 (2013).

In Windsor , the plaintiff sued the government to recover extra taxes she paid because the Defense of Marriage Act prevented her from claiming an estate-tax exemption as the surviving spouse of her same-sex partner. Id. at 750–51, 133 S.Ct. 2675. Both she and the government agreed that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. Id. at 756, 133 S.Ct. 2675. They also agreed on the relief that would be afforded if the Act was held unconstitutional—payment of Windsor's tax refund. But the government nonetheless continued enforcing the Act and refusing to pay the refund. Id. at 754, 133 S.Ct. 2675.

The Executive's decision to not defend the Act's constitutionality concerned the Court because the case lacked adverse arguments from the parties....

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