Vaca v. Sipes

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation17 L.Ed.2d 842,87 S.Ct. 903,386 U.S. 171
Docket NumberNo. 114,114
PartiesManuel VACA et al., Petitioners, v. Niles SIPES, Administrator of the Estate of Benjamin Owens, Jr., Deceased
Decision Date27 February 1967

[Syllabus from pages 171-172 intentionally omitted] David E. Feller, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Allan R. Browne, Kansas City, Mo., for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

On February 13, 1962, Benjamin Owens filed this class action against petitioners, as officers and representatives of the National Brotherhood of Packinghouse Workers1 and of its Kansas City Local No. 12 (the Union), in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri. Owens, a Union member, alleged that he had been discharged from his employment at Swift & Company's (Swift) Kansas City Meat Packing Plant in violation of the collective bargaining agreement then in force between Swift and the Union, and that the Union had 'arbitrarily, capriciously and without just or reasonable reason or cause' refused to take his grievance with Swift to arbitration under the fifth step of the bargaining agreement's grievance procedures.

Petitioners' answer included the defense that the Missouri courts lacked jurisdiction because the gravamen of Owens' suit was 'arguably and basically' an unfair labor practice under § 8(b) of the National Labor Relations Act (N.L.R.A.), as amended, 61 Stat. 141, 29 U.S.C. § 158(b), within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). After a jury trial, a verdict was returned awarding Owens $7,000 compensatory and $3,300 punitive damages. The trial judge set aside the verdict and entered judgment for petitioners on the ground that the NLRB had exclusive jurisdiction over this controversy, and the Kansas City Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed and directed reinstatement of the jury's verdict,2 relying on this Court's decisions in International Assn. of Machinists v. Gonzales, 356 U.S. 617, 78 S.Ct. 923, 2 L.Ed.2d 1018, and in International Union, United Automobile, etc. Workers of America v. Russell, 356 U.S. 634, 78 S.Ct. 932, 2 L.Ed.2d 1030. 397 S.W.2d 658. During the appeal, Owens died and respondent, the administrator of Owens' estate, was substituted. We granted certiorari to consider whether exclusive jurisdiction lies with the NLRB and, if not, whether the finding of Union liability and the relief afforded Owens are consistent with governing principles of federal labor law. 384 U.S. 969, 86 S.Ct. 1863, 16 L.Ed.2d 1863. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL—CIO), Swift, and the United States have filed amicus briefs supporting petitioners. Although we conclude that state courts have jurisdiction in this type of case, we hold that federal law governs, that the governing federal standards were not applied here, and that the judgment of the Supreme Court of Missouri must accordingly be reversed.


In mid-1959, Owens, a long-time high blood pressure patient, became sick and entered a hospital on sick leave from his employment with Swift. After a long rest during which his weight and blood pressure were reduced, Owens was certified by his family physician as fit to resume his heavy work in the packing plant. However, Swift's company doctor examined Owens upon his return and concluded that his blood pressure was too high to permit reinstatement. After securing a second authorization from another outside doctor, Owens returned to the plant, and a nures permitted him to resume work on January 6, 1960. However, on January 8, when the doctor discovered Owens' return, he was permanently discharged on the ground of poor health.

Armed with his medical evidence of fitness, Owens then sought the Union's help in securing reinstatement, and a grievance was filed with Swift on his behalf. By mid-November 1960, the grievance had been processed through the third and into the fourth step of the grievance procedure established by the collective bargaining agreement.3 Swift adhered to its position that Owens' poor health justified his discharge, rejecting numerous medical reports of reduced blood pressure proffered by Owens and by the Union. Swift claimed that these reports were not based upon sufficiently thorough medical tests.

On February 6, 1961, the Union sent Owens to a new doctor at Union expense 'to see if we could get some better medical evidence so that we could go to arbitration with his case.' R., at 107. This examination did not support Owens' position. When the Union received the report, its executive board voted not to take the Owens grievance to arbitration because of insufficient medical evidence. Union officers suggested to Owens that he accept Swift's offer of referral to a rehabilitation center, and the grievance was suspended for that purpose. Owens rejected this alternative and demanded that the Union take his grievance to arbitration, but the Union refused. With his contractual remedies thus stalled at the fourth step, Owens brought this suit. The grievance was finally dismissed by the Union and Swift shortly before trial began in June 1964.4

In his charge to the jury, the trial judge instructed that petitioners would be liable if Swift had wrongfully discharged Owens and if the Union had 'arbitrarily * * * and without just cause or excuse * * * refused' to press Owens' grievance to arbitration. Punitive damages could also be awarded, the trial judge charged, if the Union's conduct was 'willful, wanton and malicious.' However, the jury must return a verdict for the defendants, the judge instructed, 'if you find and believe from the evidence that the union and its representatives acted reasonably and in good faith in the handling and processing of the grievance of the plaintiff.' R., at 161—162. The jury then returned the general verdict for Owens which eventually was reinstated by the Missouri Supreme Court.


Petitioners challenge the jurisdiction of the Missouri courts on the ground that the alleged conduct of the Union was arguably an unfair labor practice and within the exclusive jurisdiction of the NLRB. Petitioners rely on Miranda Fuel Co., 140 N.L.R.B. 181 (1962), enforcement denied, 326 F.2d 172 (C.A.2d Cir. 1963), where a sharply divided Board held for the first time that a union's breach of its statutory duty of fair representation violates N.L.R.A. § 8(b), as amended. With the NLRB's adoption of Miranda Fuel, petitioners argue, the broad pre-emption doctrine defined in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 79 S.Ct. 773, 3 L.Ed.2d 775, be- comes applicable. For the reasons which follow, we reject this argument.

It is now well established that, as the exclusive bargaining representative of the employees in Owens' bargaining unit, the Union had a statutory duty fairly to represent all of those employees, both in its collective bargaining with Swift, see Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, 345 U.S. 330, 73 S.Ct. 681, 97 L.Ed. 1048; Syres v. Oil Workers International Union, 350 U.S. 892, 76 S.Ct. 152, 100 L.Ed. 785, and in its enforcement of the resulting collective bargaining agreement, see Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335, 84 S.Ct. 363, 11 L.Ed.2d 370. The statutory duty of fair representation was developed over 20 years ago in a series of cases involving alleged racial discrimination by unions certified as exclusive bargaining representatives under the Railway Labor Act, see Steele v. Louisville & N.R. Co., 323 U.S. 192, 65 S.Ct. 226, 89 L.Ed. 173; Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, 323 U.S. 210, 65 S.Ct. 235, 89 L.Ed. 187, and was soon extended to unions certified under the N.L.R.A., see Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, supra. Under this doctrine, the exclusive agent's statutory authority to represent all members of a designated unit includes a statutory obligation to serve the interests of all members without hostility or discrimination toward any, to exercise its discretion with complete good faith and honesty, and to avoid arbitrary conduct. Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S., at 342, 84 S.Ct., at 367. It is obvious that Owens' complaint alleged a breach by the Union of a duty grounded in federal statutes, and that federal law therefore governs his cause of action. e.g., Ford Motor Co. v. Huffman, supra.

Although N.L.R.A. § 8(b) was enacted in 1947, the NLRB did not until Miranda Fuel interpret a breach of a union's duty of fair representation as an unfair labor practice. In Miranda Fuel, the Board's majority held that N.L.R.A. § 7 gives employees 'the right to be free from unfair or irrelevant or invidious treatment by their exclusive bargaining agent in matters affecting their employment,' and 'that Section 8(b)(1)(A) of the Act accordingly prohibits labor organizations, when acting in a statutory representative capacity, from taking action against any employee upon considerations or classifications which are irrelevant, invidious, or unfair.' 140 N.L.R.B., at 185. The Board also held that an employer who 'participates' in such arbitrary union conduct violates § 8(a)(1), and that the employer and the union may violate §§ 8(a)(3) and 8(b)(2), respectively, 'when, for arbitrary or irrelevant reasons or upon the basis of an unfair classification, the union attempts to cause or does cause an employer to derogate the employment status of an employee.'5 Id., at 186.

The Board's Miranda Fuel decision was denied enforcement by a divided Second Circuit, 326 F.2d 172 (1963). However, in Local Union No. 12, United Rubber, etc., Workers of America v. N.L.R.B., 368 F.2d 12, the Fifth Circuit upheld the Board's Miranda Fuel doctrine in an opinion suggesting that the Board's approach will pre-empt judicial cognizance of some fair representation duty suits. In light of these developments, petitioners argue that Owens' state court action was based upon Union conduct that is arguably proscribed by N.L.R.A. § 8(b), was potentially enforceable by the NLRB, and...

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