Slocum v. Delaware Co, 391

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACK
Citation94 L.Ed. 795,339 U.S. 239,70 S.Ct. 577
Docket NumberNo. 391,391
Decision Date10 April 1950

Messrs. Leo J. Hassenauer, Chicago, Ill., Manly Fleischmann, Buffalo, N.Y., for petitioner.

Mr. Pierre W. Evans, Elmira, N.Y., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 3 of the Railway Labor Act confers jurisdiction on the National Railway Adjustment Board to hold hearings, make findings, and enter awards in all disputes between carriers and their employees 'growing out of grievances or out of the interpretation or application of agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, or working conditions * * *.'1 The question presented is whether state courts have power to adjudicate disputes involving such interpretations when the Adjustment Board has not acted.

The respondent railroad has separate collective-bargaining agreements with the Order of Railroad Telegraphers and the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks.2 A dispute arose between the two unions concerning the scope of their respective agreements. Each claimed for its members certain jobs in the railroad yards at Elmira, New York. The railroad agreed with the Clerks Union. The chairman of Telegraphers protested, urging reassignment of the work to members of his union and claiming back pay on behalf of certain individual members. The claims were pursued in 'the usual manner' required by § 3, First (i) of the Railway Labor Act, 45 U.S.C. § 153, First (i), 45 U.S.C.A. § 153, First (i), as a prerequisite to invoking jurisdiction of the Adjustment Board.3 That section further provides that 'failing to reach an adjustment in this manner, the disputes may be referred by petition of the parties or by either party to the appropriate division of the Adjustment Board * * *.'

Instead of invoking the jurisdiction of the Adjustment Board, the railroad filed this action for declaratory judgment in a New York state court, naming both unions as defendants. It prayed for an interpretation of both agreements, and for a declaration that the Clerks' agreement, not the Telegraphers', covered the jobs in controversy. It also asked for a declaration that the Telegraphers must refrain from making similar claims under its bargaining agreement. Telegraphers moved to dismiss the case on the ground that the Railway Labor Act left the state court without jurisdiction to interpret the contracts and adjudicate the dispute. That motion was denied. 274 App.Div. 950, 83 N.Y.S.2d 513. After a trial, the court interpreted the contracts as the railroad had urged, and entered the requested declarations. This judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals of New York, two judges dissenting. 299 N.Y. 496, 87 N.E.2d 532.4 The majority thought that our opinion in Moore v. Illinois Central R. Co., 312 U.S 630, 61 S.Ct. 754, 85 L.Ed. 1089, left state courts free to adjudicate disputes arising out of a carrier-union collective agreement without obtaining the Board's interpretation of that agreement. The dissenting judges, however, relied on Order of Ry. Conductors v. Pitney, 326 U.S. 561, 66 S.Ct. 322, 90 L.Ed. 318, where we held that federal courts should not interpret such agreements prior to interpretation by the Adjustment Board. They asserted that this rule was also applicable in state courts. We granted certiorari to consider these questions. 338 U.S. 890, 70 S.Ct. 242.

The first declared purpose of the Railway Labor Act is 'To avoid any interruption to commerce or to the operation of any carrier engaged therein'. 48 Stat. 1186 (§ 2), 45 U.S.C. § 151a, 45 U.S.C.A. § 151a. This purpose extends both to disputes concerning the making of collective agreements and to grievances arising under existing agreements. See Elgin, J. & E.R. Co. v. Burley, 325 U.S. 711, 722, 65 S.Ct. 1282, 1289, 89 L.Ed. 1886. The plan of the Act is to provide administrative methods for settling disputes before they reach acute stages that might be provocative of strikes. Carriers are therefore required to negotiate with bargaining representatives of the employees. Virginian R. Co. v. System Federation, 300 U.S. 515, 547, 548, 57 S.Ct. 592, 599, 81 L.Ed. 789. The Act also sets up machinery for conciliation, mediation, arbitration and adjustment of disputes, to be invoked if negotiations fail.

In this case the dispute concerned interpretation of an existing bargaining agreement. Its settlement would have prospective as well as retrospective importance to both the railroad and its employees, since the interpretation accepted would govern future relations of those parties. This type of grievance has long been considered a potent cause of friction leading to strikes. It was to prevent such friction that the 1926 Act provided for creation of various Adjustment Boards by voluntary agreements between carriers and workers. 44 Stat. 578. But this voluntary machinery proved unsatisfactory, and in 1934 Congress, with the support of both unions and railroads, passed an amendment which directly created a national Adjustment Board composed of representatives of railroads and unions.5 48 Stat. 1189-1193. The Act thus represents a considered effort on the part of Congress to provide effective and desirable administrative remedies for adjustment of railroad-employee disputes growing out of the interpretation of existing agreements. The Adjustment Board is well equipped to exercise its congressionally imposed functions. Its members understand railroad problems and speak the railroad jargon.6 Long and varied experiences have added to the Board's initial qualifications. Precedents established by it, while not necessarily binding, provide opportunities for a desirable degree of uniformity in the interpretation of agreements throughout the nation's railway systems.

The paramount importance of having these chosen representatives of railroads and unions adjust grievances and disputes was emphasized by our opinion in Order of Conductors v. Pitney, supra. There we held, in a case remarkably similar to the one before us now, that the Federal District Court in its equitable discretion should have refused 'to adjudicate a jurisdictional dispute involving the railroad and two employee accredited bargaining agents * * *.' Our ground for this holding was that the court 'should not have interpreted the contracts * * *' but should have left this question for determination by the Adjustment Board, a congressionally designated agency peculiarly competent in this field. 326 U.S. at pages 567-568, 66 S.Ct. at page 325, 90 L.Ed. 318. This reasoning equally supports a denial of power in any court—state as well as federal—to invade the jurisdiction conferred on the Adjustment Board by the Railway Labor Act.

Our holding here is not inconsistent with our holding in Moore v. Illinois Central R. Co., 312 U.S. 630, 61 S.Ct. 754, 85 L.Ed. 1089. Moore was discharged by the railroad. He could have challenged the validity of his discharge before the Board, seeking reinstatement and back pay. Instead he chose to accept the railroad's action in discharging him as final, thereby ceasing to be an employee, and brought suit claiming damages for breach of contract. As we there held, the Railway Labor Act does not bar courts from adjudicating such cases. A common-law or statutory action for wrongful discharge differs from any remedy which the Board has power to provide, and does not involve questions of future relations between the railroad and its other employees. If a court in handling such a case must consider some provision of a collective-bargaining agreement, its interpretation would of course have no binding effect on future interpretations by the Board.

We hold that the jurisdiction of the Board to adjust grievances and disputes of the type here involved is exclusive.7 The holding of the Moore case does not conflict with this decision, and no contrary inference should be drawn from any language in the Moore opinion. It was error for the New York courts to uphold a declaratory judgment interpreting these collective-bargaining agreements. The judgment of the New York Court of Appeals is reversed and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice REED, dissenting.

The Court denies 'power in any court—state as well as federal to invade the jurisdiction conferred on the Adjustment Board by the Railway Labor Act.' It says 'that the jurisdiction of the Board to adjust grievances and disputes of the type here involved is exclusive.' Read literally, this language would indicate that the Court holds that the Board in most cases not only has exclusive jurisdiction for the institution of proceedings to determine rights under railroad collective-bargaining agreements, but also for their final determination, i.e., that there is no judicial review of the Board's awards, except those for money. The Court, however, in note 7 states that it is not 'called upon to decide any question concerning judicial proceedings to review board action or inaction.' From this I take it that the Court means only to hold that the Board has what might be called exclusive primary jurisdiction and that the decision is to have no implications for later cases which might pose the issue of judicial review of Board 'action or inaction.'1 Never- theless I think the Court's decision lacks statutory basis, and I dissent from its opinion and judgment.

Since the Court's decision will be referred to as a precedent for solving administrative jurisdiction problems, it seems worth while to set out my reasons for disagreeing with the Court's opinion. We can foresee only a part of the complications that this ruling of exclusive primary jurisdiction may bring into the administration of the Railway Labor Act. The determination of what adjudicatory body has power to judge a controversy is basic to all litigation....

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