Bowen v. USPS
459 U.S. 212 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bowen v. USPS, 459 U.S. 212 (1983)

Bowen v. United States Postal Service

No. 81-525

Argued October 6, 1982

Decided January 11, 1983

459 U.S. 212

Syllabus

After petitioner employee was discharged by respondent United States Postal Service (USPS) as a result of an altercation with another employee, he filed a grievance with respondent Union as provided by the applicable collective bargaining agreement. When the Union declined to take his grievance to arbitration, petitioner sued respondents in Federal District Court, claiming that he had been wrongfully discharged and seeking damages and injunctive relief. Entering judgment on a jury verdict against both respondents, the District Court held that the USPS had discharged petitioner without just cause, and that the Union had handled his grievance in an arbitrary manner. Accordingly, the court upheld the jury's apportionment of damages between the USPS and the Union. The Court of Appeals affirmed except for the award of damages against the Union, holding that, because petitioner's compensation was payable only by the USPS, reimbursement for his lost earnings continued to be the USPS's exclusive obligation, and that hence no portion of the deprivations was chargeable to the Union.

Held: Where the District Court's findings, accepted by the Court of Appeals, established that petitioner's damages were caused initially by the USPS's unlawful discharge and were increased by the Union's breach of its duty of fair representation, apportionment of the damages was required. Vaca v. Sipes,386 U. S. 171. Pp. 459 U. S. 218-230.

(a) The governing principle of Vaca is that, where an employee proves that his employer violated the collective bargaining agreement and that his union breached its duty of fair representation, liability is to be apportioned between the employer and the union according to the damages caused by the fault of each. To interpret this principle as requiring that an employer be solely liable for damages resulting from a wrongful discharge treats the relationship between the employer and employee, created by the collective bargaining agreement, as if it were a simple contract of hire governed by traditional common law principles. Such a reading fails to recognize that a collective bargaining agreement is much more than traditional common law employment terminable at will. Rather, it is an agreement creating relationships and interests under the federal common law of labor policy. Pp. 459 U. S. 218-220.

Page 459 U. S. 213

(b) Of paramount importance is the right of the employee, who has been injured by both the employer's and the union's breach, to be made whole. Even though both the employer and the union have caused the damage suffered by the employee, the union is responsible for the increase in damages resulting from breach of its duty of fair representation having caused the grievance procedure to malfunction, and, as between the two wrongdoers, the union should bear its portion of the damages. Pp. 459 U. S. 220-224.

(c) When the union, as the employee's exclusive agent, waives arbitration or fails to seek review of an adverse decision, the employer should be in substantially the same position as if the employee had had the right to act on his own behalf and had done so. In the absence of damages apportionment where the default of both the employer and the union contributes to the employee's injury, incentives to comply with the grievance proceeding would be diminished, and to impose total liability solely on the employer could affect the willingness of employers to agree to arbitration clauses. To require the union to pay damages does not impose a burden on the union inconsistent with national labor policy, but rather provides an additional incentive for the union to process its members' claims where warranted. Pp. 459 U. S. 224-228.

(d) Czosek v. O'Mara,397 U. S. 25, is not inconsistent with Vaca's recognition that each party should bear the damages attributable to its fault. Pp. 459 U. S. 228-230.

642 F.2d 79, reversed and remanded.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which MARSHALL and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, and in all but Part IV of which REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 459 U. S. 230. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 459 U. S. 246.

Page 459 U. S. 214

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