Northwest Airlines, Inc v. Transport Workers Union of America

Decision Date20 April 1981
Docket NumberAFL-CIO,No. 79-1056,79-1056
Citation451 U.S. 77,67 L.Ed.2d 750,101 S.Ct. 1571
PartiesNORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., Petitioner, v. TRANSPORT WORKERS UNION OF AMERICA,, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

In a class action brought against petitioner airline by a female cabin attendant employee, petitioner was held liable to the class of such female employees for backpay because wage differentials between male and female cabin attendants collectively bargained with respondent unions were found to violate the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After its postjudgment motions claiming contribution from the unions for a proportionate part of the liability were denied as untimely, petitioner brought a separate action in Federal District Court seeking such contribution. The District Court interpreted the pleadings as contending that petitioner had either an implied cause of action for contribution against the unions under the Equal Pay Act for discriminating against the class of employees in question or a federal common-law right to contribution from the unions for a share of its Equal Pay Act liability, and that the petitioner's claim for reimbursement for its Title VII liability was based solely on a federal common-law right to contribution. The court dismissed the claim for contribution based on petitioner's liability under the Equal Pay Act, but, denying the unions' motions to dismiss, held that there was a federal common-law right to contribution for liability imposed under Title VII, at least under some circumstances, and that it would reach the issues as to this right when the facts were properly developed. Both the unions and petitioner appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal for contribution based on petitioner's liability under the Equal Pay Act, but declined to reach the Title VII issue, remanding to the District Court for determination of the unions' assertion that the Title VII contribution claim was barred by laches.

Held : Petitioner has neither a federal statutory nor a federal common-law right to contribution from respondent unions. Pp. 86-99.

(a) Even if it is assumed that all of the elements of a typical contribution claim are established in this case, that the policy considerations under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII favor the recognition of a right to contribution, that the unions bear significant responsibility for discriminatory practices that these statutes were designed to prohibit, and that there are circumstances in which an employer may be a "person aggrieved" by union conduct that would be remediable under Title VII, none of these assumptions provides a sufficient basis for recognizing the right to contribution asserted by petitioner. Pp. 86-91.

(b) The language of neither the Equal Pay Act nor Title VII, both of which statutes are expressly directed against employers, supports implication of a right to contribution in favor of employers against unions. The structure and legislative histories of both statutes similarly do not support such an implied right. Pp. 91-95.

(c) Whatever may be a federal court's power to fashion remedies in other areas of the law, it would be improper to add a federal common-law right to contribution to the statutory rights that Congress created in the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. Cooper Stevedoring Co. v. Fritz Kopke, Inc., 417 U.S. 106, 94 S.Ct. 2174, 40 L.Ed.2d 694, distinguished. A favorable reaction to the equitable considerations supporting petitioner's contribution claim is not a sufficient reason for enlarging on the remedial provisions contained in these carefully considered statutes. Cf. Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 100 S.Ct. 2486, 65 L.Ed.2d 532. Pp. 95-99.

196 U.S.App.D.C. 443, 606 F.2d 1350, affirmed in part and vacated in part.

Philip A. Lacovara, Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Stephen B. Moldof, New York City, for respondents.

Lawrence G. Wallace, Washington, D. C., for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented in this case is whether an employer held liable to its female employees for backpay because collectively bargained wage differentials were found to violate the Equal Pay Act of 1963 1 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 2 has a federal statutory or common-law right to contribution from unions that allegedly bear at least partial responsibility for the statutory violations.

The relevant facts are alleged in the complaint filed by the petitioner, Northwest Airlines, Inc., against the respondent unions, the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) and the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.3 Continuously from 1947 through 1974, petitioner paid higher wages to its male cabin attendants, who were classi- fied as pursers, than to its female cabin attendants, who were classified as stewardesses. During that period, both the male and the female cabin attendants were represented by a union—TWU from 1961 to 1971 and ALPA thereafter 4—and their wages were fixed by collective-bargaining agreements negotiated and executed in response to union demands.

In 1970, Mary Laffey, a female cabin attendant employed by petitioner, commenced a class action against petitioner challenging the legality of the wage differential between pursers and stewardesses.5 On November 12, 1973, after a full trial, the District Court issued an opinion in which it found that the two positions required equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and were performed under similar working conditions. Accordingly, the court held that petitioner had violated the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and entered judgment in favor of the plaintiff class. Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 366 F.Supp. 763 (1973).6 Unless that judgment is reversed or modified, peti- tione will be required to pay in excess of $20 million in backpay, damages, and interest to the members of the Laffey plaintiff class.7

After the entry of judgment against it, petitioner filed appropriate motions in the Laffey case asserting claims for contribution and indemnification against TWU and ALPA.8 These motions were denied as untimely, and the Court of Appeals affirmed this ruling. Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc., 185 U.S.App.D.C. 322, 369-370, 567 F.2d 429, 476-478. Promptly thereafter, petitioner commenced this separate action. The complaint prayed that each union be adjudged liable to pay a proportion of any monetary liability finally assessed against petitioner in the Laffey litigation. The unions moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

As the District Court interpreted the pleadings, petitioner contended that it had an implied cause of action against the unions under the Equal Pay Act for causing it to discriminate against the Laffey class, or, in the alternative, a federal common-law right to contribution from the unions for a share of its Equal Pay Act monetary liability. Petitioner's claim for reimbursement for its Title VII monetary liability was based solely on a federal common-law right to contribution. App. to Pet. for Cert. 2b-3b. The District Court held that because the Equal Pay Act clearly was not enacted for the spe- cial benefit of employers, petitioner could not rely upon an implied private cause of action for contribution under that statute. The court also concluded that the Act did not afford employees any express or implied right of action against their unions; because it found that unions and employers do not share common liability to employees under the Equal Pay Act, the District Court held that there is no federal common-law right to contribution for liability under that statute.9

The District Court reached a different conclusion with respect to the claim for contribution for petitioner's Title VII monetary liability. It found that the allegations of the complaint satisfied the two principal elements of a common-law right to contribution: (1) common liability and (2) the party seeking contribution has been required to pay more than its just share of the award. Id., at 10b. The court answered what it described as the "more difficult question" whether there is a right to contribution under federal law by noting a modern trend of federal-court decisions favoring contribution,10 and by finding that the policy of the statute would be served by allowing contribution. Assuming, without deciding, that contribution might be denied for an intentional wrong, the court denied the unions' motions to dismiss, holding "only that there is a federal common law right to contribution for monetary liability imposed under Title VII, at least under some circumstances, and it will reach the questions as to the precise parameters of this right when the pertinent facts have been developed and properly placed before the Court." Id., at 18b.11

The unions took an interlocutory appeal from the Title VII holding,12 and petitioner appealed the Equal Pay Act holding.13 The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the claim for contribution based on petitioner's liability under the Equal Pay Act, reasoning that such a claim would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme prescribing three, and only three, modes of enforcement.14 However, the Court of Appeals declined to reach the Title VII issue. Noting that on appeal the unions had asserted for the first time that petitioner's Title VII contribution claim was barred by laches, the court remanded to the District Court with in- ructions to determine the laches question, explaining that it might thereby become unnecessary to decide the hard question concerning contribution for Title VII liability. 196 U.S.App.D.C. 443, 449, 606 F.2d 1350, 1356 (1979).

Unlike the Court of Appeals, we think the basic legal questions raised by the ...

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