United Steelworkers v. Saint Gobain Ceramics, 05-6851.

Citation505 F.3d 417
Decision Date02 October 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-6851.,05-6851.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)

ARGUED: David R. Jury, United Steelworkers of America, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for Appellant. John W. Woodard, Jr., Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: David R. Jury, Richard J. Brean, United Steelworkers of America, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for Appellant. John W. Woodard, Jr., Edwin S. Hopson, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, LLP, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellee. James B. Coppess, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.


SUTTON, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which BOGGS, C.J., GUY, BATCHELDER, DAUGHTREY, GILMAN, GIBBONS, ROGERS, COOK, McKEAGUE, and GRIFFIN, JJ., joined. CLAY, J. (pp. 425-37), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which MARTIN, MOORE, and COLE, JJ., joined.


SUTTON, Circuit Judge.

Does a dispute over the meaning of a time-limitation bar in a collective bargaining agreement present a threshold question for an arbitrator to resolve or for a judge to resolve? Under John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U.S. 543, 84 S.Ct. 909, 11 L.Ed.2d 898 (1964), and Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 123 S.Ct. 588, 154 L.Ed.2d 491 (2002), "a time limit rule is a matter presumptively for the arbitrator, not for the judge," Howsam, 537 U.S. at 85, 123 S.Ct. 588. Because neither the terms of this time-limitation provision nor the terms of the collective bargaining agreement rebut that presumption, we hold that the parties' dispute over the meaning of the provision should be resolved by an arbitrator.


Saint Gobain Ceramics makes refractory products for a variety of industrial clients. The United Steelworkers of America represents the Louisville-based workers of the company. The two parties signed a collective bargaining agreement that governed their relationship from February 14, 2002, to February 13, 2005.

On March 2, 2004, the company fired two union members for insubordination. The union immediately filed grievances over both discharges.

The collective bargaining agreement contains a four-step process for resolving grievances. The union's grievances proceeded without complication through steps one, two and three. On March 29, 2004, the company issued a written denial of both step-3 grievances, which the union received on April 8, 2004. The agreement gave the union 30 days, excluding weekends and holidays, to appeal the company's decision to step 4—arbitration. If the union failed to appeal within the time limit, the agreement provided that the union forfeited its right to arbitrate the grievance. The union appealed the denials by letter dated May 19, 2004, and the company received the appeals on May 24, 2004. The company informed the union that the appeals could not proceed to arbitration (step 4) because it had received them after the 30-day deadline.

The union filed an action in federal district court under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, to compel arbitration of the two grievances under the collective bargaining agreement. Faced with cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court (1) held that General Drivers, Warehousemen & Helpers, Local Union 89 v. Moog Louisville Warehouse, 852 F.2d 871 (6th Cir.1988), required a federal judge, not an arbitrator, to determine whether the time-limitation bar applied to the two grievances, (2) concluded that the union failed to satisfy the time requirement and (3) dismissed the two grievances.

Bound by Moog, a panel of this court affirmed. United Steelworkers v. Saint Gobain Ceramics & Plastics, Inc., 467 F.3d 540, 545 (6th Cir.2006). The union sought en banc review, and we granted the petition. See No. 05-6851, 182 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2907, 2007 U.S.App. LEXIS 12224 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2007).


When an employer and a union agree to submit grievances arising from a collective bargaining agreement to arbitration, the "limited" function of the federal courts is "to ascertain[] whether the party seeking arbitration is making a claim which on its face is governed by the contract." United Steelworkers v. Am. Mfg. Co., 363 U.S. 564, 567-68, 80 S.Ct. 1343, 4 L.Ed.2d 1403 (1960). Whether a collective bargaining agreement commits a dispute to arbitration, the Supreme Court has held, is a question of arbitrability for the courts to decide. See Howsam v. Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc., 537 U.S. 79, 84-85, 123 S.Ct. 588, 154 L.Ed.2d 491 (2002); John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Livingston, 376 U.S. 543, 547, 84 S.Ct. 909, 11 L.Ed.2d 898 (1964). Whether the parties have complied with the procedural requirements for arbitrating the case, by contrast, is generally a question for the arbitrator to decide. Howsam, 537 U.S. at 85, 123 S.Ct. 588; John Wiley & Sons, 376 U.S. at 556-57, 84 S.Ct. 909. If doubt exists over whether a dispute falls on one side or the other of this line, the presumption in favor of arbitrability makes the question one for the arbitrator. AT & T Techs., Inc. v. Commc'ns Workers, 475 U.S. 643, 650-51, 106 S.Ct. 1415, 89 L.Ed.2d 648 (1986); see Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Const. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25, 103 S.Ct. 927, 74 L.Ed.2d 765 (1983) (recognizing a "liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements").

Two Supreme Court cases illustrate this dichotomy and show how it should be applied to debates about the application of a time—limitation provision. The "threshold question" in John Wiley & Sons, as in today's case, was "who shall decide" a series of disputes arising under a collective bargaining agreement-an arbitrator or a judge? 376 U.S. at 547, 84 S.Ct. 909. The first dispute dealt with whether a collective bargaining agreement applied to a company (Wiley) that had not signed the agreement but had merged with a company that had signed it. Because this dispute asked whether Wiley was "bound to arbitrate, as well as what issues it must arbitrate," the Court determined that it was one for judicial determination. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "The duty to arbitrate being of contractual origin," the Court reasoned, "a compulsory submission to arbitration cannot precede judicial determination that the collective bargaining agreement does in fact create such a duty." Id.

The Court reached a different conclusion about two other disputes presented in the case(1) whether the union had satisfied steps 1 and 2 of the agreement's multi-step grievance procedure, which preceded the company's "duty to arbitrate" in step 3, and (2) whether the union had complied with a time-limitation bar. Id. at 556 & n. 11, 84 S.Ct. 909. "Notice of any grievance," the time rule said, "must be filed with the Employer and with the Union Shop Steward within four (4) weeks after its occurrence or latest existence. The failure by either party to file the grievance within this time limitation shall be construed and be deemed to be an abandonment of the grievance." Id. (quoting the rule). "Once it is determined . . . that the parties are obligated to submit the subject matter of a dispute to arbitration," as it had been in that case, the Court reasoned that "`procedural' questions which grow out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition"—such as questions about the application of a time-limitation bar— "should be left to the arbitrator." Id. at 557, 84 S.Ct. 909. A different interpretation, the Court feared, "would produce . . . delay attendant upon judicial proceedings preliminary to arbitration," and, what is more, the "[r]eservation of `procedural' issues for the courts" would "not only create the difficult task of separating related issues, but would also produce frequent duplication of effort." Id. at 558, 84 S.Ct. 909. In the end, the Court explained, "it best accords with the usual purposes of an arbitration clause and with the policy behind federal labor law to regard procedural disagreements not as separate disputes but as aspects of the dispute which called the grievance procedures into play." Id. at 558-59, 84 S.Ct. 909. The Court accordingly ordered the company to comply with its duty to arbitrate, leaving it to the arbitrator to decide whether the time-limitation and step-grievance requirements had been satisfied.

Nearly 40 years later, the Court addressed a similar issue and followed a similar path. The question at hand in Howsam was whether a judge or an arbitrator should apply a time-limitation rule of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD). No dispute, the rule said, "shall be eligible for submission to arbitration . . . where six (6) years have elapsed from the occurrence or event giving rise to the . . . dispute." 537 U.S. at 81, 123 S.Ct. 588 (quoting NASD Code of Arbitration Procedure § 10304 (1984)). The company opposed arbitration on the ground that application of the time-limitation rule presented a threshold question of arbitrability for a court to decide because a dispute that was more than six years old was "ineligible for arbitration." Id. at 82, 123 S.Ct. 588.

"Linguistically speaking," the Court began, "one might call any potentially dispositive gateway question a `question of arbitrability,' for its answer will determine whether the underlying controversy will proceed to arbitration on the merits." Id. at 83, 123 S.Ct. 588. But the "Court's case law . . . makes clear that . . . the phrase `question of arbitrability' has a far more limited scope." Id. It instead refers to "the kind of narrow circumstance where contracting parties would likely have expected a court to have decided the gateway matter, where they are not likely to have thought that they had agreed that an arbitrator...

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