Automobile Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp.
383 U.S. 696 (1966)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Automobile Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 383 U.S. 696 (1966)

International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &

Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW),

AFL-CIO v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp.

No. 387

Argued January 27, 1966

Decided March 24, 1966

383 U.S. 696

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Petitioner union and respondent company were parties to a collective bargaining agreement which required payment of accumulated vacation pay to qualified employees upon termination of their employment. In June, 1957, the company discharged employees covered by the agreement without such payment. An action brought in the Indiana courts to recover the amounts allegedly due was dismissed in 1960 on the ground that the complaint was insufficient under state law. Almost four years later, and almost seven years after the employees' discharge, the union brought this action in the Federal District Court under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947. The Act contains no time limitation upon the bringing of an action under § 301. The District Court viewed the action as based partly on the collective bargaining agreement and partly on the oral contract of each employee, and held that Indiana, in such case, would apply its six-year statute of limitations governing contracts not in writing. The complaint was accordingly dismissed as untimely, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held:

1. A union may properly sue under § 301 to recover wages or vacation pay claimed by its members pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. Smith v. Evening News Assn.,371 U. S. 195, 371 U. S. 198. Pp. 383 U. S. 699-700.

2. The timeliness of a suit under § 301, there being no governing federal provision, is to be determined, as a matter of federal law, by reference to the appropriate state statute of limitations. Pp. 383 U. S. 701-704.

(a) The fact that Congress did not provide a uniform limitations provision for § 301 suits does not require that the courts invent one. P. 383 U. S. 703.

(b) State statutes have repeatedly supplied the periods of limitation for federal causes of action when federal legislation has been silent. Pp. 383 U. S. 703-704.

Page 383 U. S. 697

3. The characterization of this suit as one not exclusively based on a written contract, and the application of the Indiana six-year statute of limitations, do not conflict with federal labor policy. Pp. 383 U. S. 705-707.

4. The statute of limitations was not tolled in this case by the prior litigation. Burnett v. New York Central R. Co.,380 U. S. 424, distinguished. Pp. 383 U. S. 707-708.

346 F.2d 242, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, confers jurisdiction upon the federal district courts over suits upon collective bargaining contracts. [Footnote 1] Nowhere

Page 383 U. S. 698

in the Act, however, is there a provision for any time limitation upon the bringing of an action under § 301. The questions presented by this case arise because of the absence of such a provision.

The petitioner union and the respondent company were parties to a collective bargaining contract within the purview of § 301. The contract contained a section governing vacations. One clause in this section dealt with payment of accumulated vacation pay, by providing:

"Employees who qualified for a vacation in the previous year and whose employment is terminated for any reason before the vacation is taken will be paid that vacation at time of termination."

On June 1, 1957, prior to the expiration of the contract, the company terminated the employment of employees covered by the agreement, but it did not pay them any accumulated vacation pay. Since that date, two lawsuits have been brought to recover amounts allegedly due. The first was a class action in early 1958, brought against the company in an Indiana court, but the court ruled that such

Page 383 U. S. 699

an action was impermissible under Indiana law. In an attempt to remedy this pleading defect, the former employees assigned their vacation pay claims to a union representative, who then filed an amended complaint, but this form of action, too, was held improper under Indiana law. Thereafter, by further amended complaints, the employees sought to reform and reinstitute the class action, but, once again, the trial court held the complaint insufficient as a matter of state law. The court dismissed the suit in June, 1960, and the judgment of dismissal was affirmed on appeal. Johnson v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 134 Ind. 477, 189 N.E.2d 592.

Almost four years after the dismissal of that lawsuit by the Indiana trial court, and almost seven years after the employees had left the company, the union filed the present action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. On the company's motion, the trial court dismissed the complaint, concluding that the suit was barred by a six-year Indiana statute of limitations. The court regarded this action as based partly upon the written collective bargaining agreement and partly upon the oral employment contract each employee had made, and it held that Indiana would apply to such a hybrid action its six-year statute governing contracts not in writing. Ind.Stat.Ann. § 2-601 (1965 Supp.). 235 F.Supp. 183. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed, 346 F.2d 242, and we granted certiorari, 382 U.S. 808.

We note at the outset that this action was properly brought by the union under § 301. There is no merit to the contention that a union may not sue to recover wages or vacation pay claimed by its members pursuant to the terms of a collective bargaining contract. Such a suit is among those "[s]uits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization" that § 301 was designed to permit. This conclusion is unimpaired

Page 383 U. S. 700

by the fact that each worker's claim may also depend upon the existence of his individual contract of employment. See J. I. Case Co. v. Labor Bard,321 U. S. 332, 321 U. S. 335-336. In Smith v. Evening News Assn.,371 U. S. 195, we rejected the view, once held for varying reasons by a majority of this Court, Association of Westinghouse Salaried Employees v. Westinghouse Corp.,348 U. S. 437,

"that § 301 did not give the . . . courts jurisdiction over a suit brought by a union to enforce employee rights . . . characterized as . . . arising 'from separate hiring contracts between the employer and each employee.'"

371 U.S. at 371 U. S. 198. Although the Smith case was brought by an individual worker, there is every reason to recognize the union's standing to vindicate employee rights under a contract the union obtained. Such recognition is fully consistent with the language of § 301(b): "Any . . . labor organization may sue . . . in behalf of the employees whom it represents in the courts of the United States." 61 Stat. 156, 29 U.S.C. § 185(b) (1964 ed.). [Footnote 2] And indeed, the union's standing to vindicate employee rights under § 301 implements no more than the established doctrine that the union's role in the collective bargaining process does not end with the making of the contract. [Footnote 3]

Page 383 U. S. 701

Since this suit was properly brought under § 301, the question of its timeliness is squarely presented. It is clearly a federal question, for, in § 301 suits, the applicable law is "federal law, which the courts must fashion from the policy of our national labor laws." Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills,353 U. S. 448, 353 U. S. 456. Relying upon that statement and upon the coordinate principle that "incompatible doctrines of local law must give way to principles of federal labor law," Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co.,369 U. S. 95, 369 U. S. 102, the union contends that this suit cannot be barred by a statute of limitations enacted by a State. We are urged, instead, to devise a uniform time limitation to close the statutory gap left by Congress. But the teaching of our cases does not require so bald a form of judicial innovation. Lincoln Mills instructs that, in fashioning federal law, the "range of judicial inventiveness will be determined by the nature of the problem." 353 U.S. at 353 U. S. 457. We do not question that there are problems so vital to the implementation of federal labor policy that they will command a high degree of inventiveness from the courts. The problem presented here, however, is not of that nature.

It is true that, if state limitations provisions govern § 301 suits, these suits will lack a uniform standard of timeliness. It is also true that the subject matter of § 301 is "peculiarly one that calls for uniform law." Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co., supra, at 369 U. S. 103. Our cases have defined the need for uniformity, however, in terms that are largely inapplicable here:

"The possibility that individual contract terms might have different meanings under [two systems of law] would inevitably exert a disruptive influence upon both the negotiation and administration of collective

Page 383 U. S. 702

agreements. Because neither party could be certain of the rights which it had obtained or conceded, the process of negotiating an agreement would be made immeasurably more difficult by the necessity of trying to formulate contract provisions in such a way as to contain the same meaning under two or more systems of law which might someday be invoked in enforcing the contract. Once the collective bargain was made, the possibility of conflicting substantive interpretation under competing legal systems would tend to stimulate and prolong disputes as to its interpretation. Indeed, the existence of possibly conflicting legal concepts might substantially impede the parties' willingness to agree to contract terms providing for final arbitral or judicial resolution of disputes."

". . . The ordering and adjusting of competing interests through a process of free and voluntary collective bargaining is the keystone of the federal scheme to promote industrial peace. State law which frustrates the effort of Congress to stimulate the smooth functioning of that process thus strikes at the very core of federal labor policy."

Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co.,369 U. S. 95, 369 U. S. 103-104.

The need for uniformity, then, is greatest where its absence would threaten the smooth functioning of those consensual processes that federal labor law is chiefly designed to promote -- the formation of the collective agreement and the private settlement of disputes under it. For the most part, statutes of limitations come into play only when these processes have already broken down. Lack of uniformity in this area is therefore unlikely to frustrate in any important way the achievement of any significant goal of labor policy. Thus, although a uniform limitations provision for § 301 suits might well

Page 383 U. S. 703

constitute a desirable statutory addition, there is no justification for the drastic sort of judicial legislation that is urged upon us. [Footnote 4] See Smith v. Evening News Assn., supra, at 371 U. S. 203 (BLACK, J., dissenting).

That Congress did not provide a uniform limitations provision for § 301 suits is not an argument for judicially creating one, unless we ignore the context of this legislative omission. It is clear that Congress gave attention to limitations problems in the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947; it enacted a six months' provision to govern unfair labor practice proceedings, 61 Stat. 146, 29 U.S.C. § 160(b) (1964 ed.), and it did so only after appreciable controversy. [Footnote 5] In this context, and against the background of the relationship between Congress and the courts on the question of limitations provisions, it cannot be fairly inferred that, when Congress left § 301 without a uniform time limitation, it did so in the expectation that the courts would invent one. As early as 1830, this Court held that state statutes of limitations govern the timeliness of federal causes of action unless

Page 383 U. S. 704

Congress has specifically provided otherwise. McCluny v. Silliman, 3 Pet. 270, 28 U. S. 277. In 1895, the question was reexamined in another context, but the conclusion remained firm. Campbell v. Haverhill,155 U. S. 610. Since that time, state statutes have repeatedly supplied the periods of limitations for federal causes of action when federal legislation has been silent on the question. [Footnote 6] E.g., McClaine v. Rankin,197 U. S. 154, Cope v. Anderson,331 U. S. 461 (National Bank Act); Chattanooga Foundry v. Atlanta,203 U. S. 390 (Sherman Act); O'Sullivan v. Felix,233 U. S. 318 (Civil Rights Act of 1870); Englander Motors, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 293 F.2d 802 (C.A. 6th Cir.) (Clayton Act); but see Holmberg v. Armbrecht,327 U. S. 392 (Federal Farm Loan Act). Yet, when Congress has disagreed with such an interpretation of its silence, it has spoken to overturn it by enacting a uniform period of limitations. E.g., 69 Stat. 283, 15 U.S.C. 15b (1964 ed.) (Clayton Act); 35 U.S.C. § 286 (Patent Act). See also Herget v. Central Bank Co.,324 U. S. 4. Against this background, we cannot take the omission in the present statute as a license to judicially devise a uniform time limitation for § 301 suits. Accordingly, since no federal provision governs, we hold that the timeliness of a § 301 suit, such as the

Page 383 U. S. 705

present one, is to be determined, as a matter of federal law, by reference to the appropriate state statute of limitations. [Footnote 7] This leaves two subsidiary question to be decided. Which of Indiana's limitations provisions governs? [Footnote 8] Does any tolling principle preserve the timeliness of this action?

The union argues that, if the timeliness of this action is to be determined by reference to Indiana statutes, federal law precludes reference to the Indiana six-year provision governing contracts not in writing. Reference must be made instead, it is urged, to the Indiana 20-year provision governing written contracts. Ind.Stat.Ann. § 602 (1965 Supp.). This contention rests on the view that, under federal law, this § 301 suit must be regarded

Page 383 U. S. 706

as exclusively bottomed upon the written collective bargaining agreement. We agree that the characterization of this action for the purpose of selecting the appropriate state limitations provision is ultimately a question of federal law. Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills, supra; McClaine v. Rankin, supra. But there is no reason to reject the characterization that state law would impose unless that characterization is unreasonable or otherwise inconsistent with national labor policy. Cf. Reconstruction Finance Corp. v. Beaver County,328 U. S. 204, 328 U. S. 210; De Sylva v. Ballentine,351 U. S. 570, 351 U. S. 580-582.

Applying this principle, we cannot agree that federal law requires that this action be regarded as exclusively based upon a written contract. For purposes of § 301 jurisdiction, we have rejected the view that a suit such as this is based solely upon the separate hiring contracts, frequently oral, between the employer and each employee. Smith v. Evening News Assn., supra. It does not follow, however, that the separate contracts of employment may not be taken into account in characterizing the nature of a specific § 301 suit for the purpose of selecting the appropriate state limitations provision. Indeed, as the present case indicates, consideration of the separate contracts for that purpose is entirely acceptable. The petitioner seeks damages based upon an alleged breach of the vacation pay clause in a written collective bargaining agreement. Proof of the breach and of the measure of damages, however, both depend upon proof of the existence and duration of separate employment contracts between the employer and each of the aggrieved employees. Hence, this § 301 suit may fairly be characterized as one not exclusively based upon a written contract.

Moreover, the characterization that Indiana law imposes upon this action does not lead to any conflict with

Page 383 U. S. 707

federal labor policy. Indeed, to the extent that a policy is manifest in the Labor Management Relations Act, it supports acceptance of the characterization adopted here. The six months' provision governing unfair labor practice proceedings, 61 Stat. 146, 29 U.S.C. § 160(b), suggests that relatively rapid disposition of labor disputes is a goal of federal labor law. Since state statutes of limitations governing contracts not exclusively in writing are generally shorter than those applicable to wholly written agreements, their applicability to § 301 actions comports with that goal. There may, of course, be § 301 actions that can only be characterized fairly as based exclusively upon a written agreement. But since many § 301 actions for wages or other individual benefits will concern employment contracts of the sort involved here, there is no reason to inhibit the achievement of an identifiable goal of labor policy by precluding application of the generally shorter limitations provisions. [Footnote 9]

Accordingly, we accept the District Court's application of the six-year Indiana statute of limitations to this action. Cf. Bernhardt v. Polygraphic Co.,350 U. S. 198, 350 U. S. 204-205; Steele v. General Mills,329 U. S. 433, 329 U. S. 438. Thus, since this federal lawsuit was not filed until almost seven years after the cause of action accrued, the cause

Page 383 U. S. 708

is barred by the six-year statute unless that statute was somehow tolled by reason of the particularized circumstances of this case. [Footnote 10]

The contention that some tolling principle saves the life of this action was raised for the first time in this Court. In any event, we find the contention without merit. In Burnett v. New York Central R. Co.,380 U. S. 424, we held that the bringing of a timely action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act in a state court, even though venue was improper, served to toll the statute of limitations contained in that Act. The primary underpinning of Burnett, however, is wholly lacking here. As the Court noted in that case, a tolling principle was necessary to implement the national policy of a uniform time bar clearly expressed by Congress when it enacted the FELA limitations provision. 380 U.S. at 380 U. S. 434. Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act establishes no such policy of uniformity expressed in a national limitations provision. Moreover, unlike the plaintiff in Burnett, who could no longer bring a timely federal action after the state court dismissed his complaint, the union here had a full three years to bring this lawsuit in federal court after the dismissal of the state court action. [Footnote 11] Under these circumstances, we have no difficulty in concluding that this cause of action expired in June 1963, six years after it arose.

Affirmed.

Page 383 U. S. 709

[Footnote 1]

We use the term "collective bargaining contracts" for convenience only, and do not intend to suggest that § 301 is limited to such contracts. See Retail Clerks v. Lion Dry Goods,369 U. S. 17. Section 301 provides:

"(a) Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce as defined in this Act, or between any such labor organizations, may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties, without respect to the amount in controversy or without regard to the citizenship of the parties."

"(b) Any labor organization which represents employees in an industry affecting commerce as defined in this Act and any employer whose activities affect commerce as defined in this chapter shall be bound by the acts of its agents. Any such labor organization may sue or be sued as an entity and in behalf of the employees whom it represents in the courts of the United States. Any money judgment against a labor organization in a district court of the United States shall be enforceable only against the organization as an entity and against its assets, and shall not be enforceable against any individual member or his assets."

"(c) For the purposes of actions and proceedings by or against labor organizations in the district courts of the United States, district courts shall be deemed to have jurisdiction of a labor organization (1) in the district in which such organization maintains its principal office, or (2) in any district in which its duly authorized officers or agents are engaged in representing or acting for employee members."

"(d) The service of summons, subpoena, or other legal process of any court of the United States upon an officer or agent of a labor organization, in his capacity as such, shall constitute service upon the labor organization."

"(e) For the purposes of this section, in determining whether any person is acting as an 'agent' of another person so as to make such other person responsible for his acts, the question of whether the specific acts performed were actually authorized or subsequently ratified shall not be controlling."

61 Stat. 156-157, 29 U.S.C. § 185 (1964 ed .).

[Footnote 2]

See also Rule 17(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure; Dowd Box v. Courtney,368 U. S. 502, 368 U. S. 504; United Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel Car Corp.,363 U. S. 593.

[Footnote 3]

See, e.g., Conley v. Gibson,355 U. S. 41, 355 U. S. 46; Comment, 28 U.Chi.L.Rev. 707, 716.

That the employees in this case did not assign their claims to the union presents no barrier to the union's standing to sue in their behalf. Such a technical requirement would conflict with one of the widely recognized purposes of Congress in enacting § 301 -- the elimination of common law procedural obstacles to suits for breach of collective bargaining agreements. See, e.g., Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills,353 U. S. 448, 353 U. S. 451. Meltzer, The Supreme Court, Congress, and State Jurisdiction Over Labor Relations: II, 59 Col.L.Rev. 269.

[Footnote 4]

Our cases have spoken of the federal law applicable to § 301 suits as "substantive," see, e.g., Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills, 353 U.S. at 353 U. S. 456, and the need for uniformity in the "substantive principles" that govern these suits. See Teamsters Local v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. at 369 U. S. 103. In the view we take of the problem presented here, we need not decide whether statutes of limitations are "substantive" or "procedural." See Guaranty Trust Co. v. York,326 U. S. 99; Burnett v. New York Central R. Co.,380 U. S. 424, 380 U. S. 427, note 2. Nor need we rigidly classify them as "primary" or "remedial." To the extent that these terms are useful, we need only notice that lack of uniformity in limitations provisions is unlikely to have substantial effect upon the private definition or effectuation of "substantive" or "primary" rights in the collective bargaining process. See Wellington, Labor and the Federal System, 26 U.Chi.L.Rev. 542, 556-559.

[Footnote 5]

Compare, e.g., the remarks of Senator Wagner, 93 Cong.Rec. 3323, and those of Senator Murray, 93 Cong.Rec. 4030, with the remarks of Senator Smith, 93 Cong.Rec. 4283.

[Footnote 6]

In McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co.,357 U. S. 221, this Court held that,

"where an action for unseaworthiness is combined with an action under the Jones Act a court cannot apply to the former a shorter period of limitations than Congress has prescribed for the latter."

357 U.S. at 357 U. S. 224. The McAllister case represents no departure from the tradition discussed in the text. The Court's decision rested on the peculiar configuration of the federal maritime remedies. A seaman suing for both unseaworthiness and Jones Act negligence must do so in a single proceeding. Baltimore S. . Co. v. Phillips,274 U. S. 316. The Court had no occasion in McAllister to consider whether a state period longer than that provided in the Jones Act could be applied. 357 U.S. at 357 U. S. 227 (BRENNAN, J., concurring).

[Footnote 7]

The present suit is essentially an action for damages caused by an alleged breach of an employer's obligation embodied in a collective bargaining agreement. Such an action closely resembles an action for breach of contract cognizable at common law. Whether other § 301 suits different from the present one might call for the application of other rules on timeliness, we are not required to decide, and we indicate no view whatsoever on that question. See, e.g., Holmberg v. Armbrecht,327 U. S. 392; Moviecolor Limited v. Eastman Kodak Co., 288 F.2d 80 (C.A.2d Cir.); 2 Moore Federal Practice

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