NLRB v. City Disposal Systems, Inc.
465 U.S. 822 (1984)

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U.S. Supreme Court

NLRB v. City Disposal Systems, Inc., 465 U.S. 822 (1984)

National Labor Relations Board v. City Disposal Systems, Inc.

No. 82-960

Argued November 7, 1983

Decided March 21, 1984

465 U.S. 822

Syllabus

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act provides that employees shall have the right to join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively, and "to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." The collective bargaining agreement between respondent and the union representing its truckdrivers provides that respondent shall not require employees to operate any vehicle that is not in safe operating condition, and that "[i]t shall not be a violation of this Agreement where employees refuse to operate such equipment unless such refusal is unjustified." One of respondent's employees (James Brown) was discharged when he refused to drive a truck that he honestly and reasonably believed to be unsafe because of faulty brakes. After the union declined to process Brown's grievance under the bargaining agreement, he filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), challenging his discharge. An Administrative Law Judge concluded that, even though Brown acted alone in asserting a contractual right, his refusal to operate the truck constituted "concerted activit[y]" protected by § 7, and that respondent had therefore committed an unfair labor practice in discharging him. The NLRB adopted the Administrative Law Judge's findings and conclusions and ordered Brown's reinstatement with backpay, applying its longstanding "Interboro doctrine," which was based on the conclusions that an individual's reasonable and honest assertion of a right contained in a collective bargaining agreement is an extension of the concerted action that produced the agreement, and that the assertion of such a right affects the rights of all employees covered by the agreement. However, the Court of Appeals denied enforcement of the NLRB's order, finding that Brown's refusal to drive the truck was an action taken solely on his own behalf, and thus was not a concerted activity within § 7's meaning.

Held:

1. The NLRB's Interboro doctrine is a reasonable interpretation of the Act. Pp. 465 U. S. 829-839.

(a) The language of § 7 does not confine itself to situations where two or more employees are working together at the same time and the

Page 465 U. S. 823

same place toward a common goal, or to situations where a lone employee intends to induce group activity or acts as a representative of at least one other employee. The invocation of a right rooted in a collective bargaining agreement is unquestionably an integral part of the process that gave rise to the agreement. The Interboro doctrine is entirely consistent with the Act's purposes, which include the encouragement of collective bargaining and other practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions. Moreover, § 7's general history reveals no inconsistency between the Interboro doctrine and congressional intent to equalize the bargaining power of management and labor. As long as the employee's statement or action is based on a reasonable and honest belief that he is being, or has been, asked to perform a task that he is not required to perform under his collective bargaining agreement, and the statement or action is reasonably directed toward the enforcement of a collectively bargained right, there is no justification for overturning the NLRB's judgment that the employee is engaged in concerted activity. Pp. 465 U. S. 830-837.

(b) The fact that an activity is concerted does not necessarily mean that an employee may engage in the activity with impunity. If an employee engages in concerted activity in a manner that is overly abusive or violative of his collective bargaining agreement, his actions would be unprotected. P. 465 U. S. 837.

(c) There is no merit to the argument that the Interboro doctrine undermines the arbitration process by providing employees with the possibility of provoking a discharge and then filing an unfair labor practice claim. An employee who purposefully follows this route would run the risk that the NLRB would find his actions concerted but nonetheless unprotected. More importantly, to the extent that the factual issues raised in an unfair labor practice action have been, or can be, addressed through the grievance process, the NLRB may defer to that process. Pp. 465 U. S. 837-839.

2. The NLRB reasonably concluded that Brown's honest and reasonable assertion of his right to be free of the obligation to drive unsafe trucks, even though he did not explicitly refer to the collective bargaining agreement when he refused to drive the truck, constituted concerted activity within the meaning of § 7. As long as the nature of the employee's complaint is reasonably clear to the person to whom it is communicated, and the complaint in fact refers to a reasonably perceived violation of the collective bargaining agreement, the complaining employee is engaged in the process of enforcing that agreement. Respondent's argument that the NLRB erred in finding Brown's action concerted based only on Brown's reasonable and honest belief that the truck was

Page 465 U. S. 824

unsafe, because the bargaining agreement required that the truck be objectively unsafe, confuses the threshold question whether Brown's conduct was concerted with the ultimate question whether that conduct was protected. The latter question should be considered on remand. Pp. 465 U. S. 839-841.

683 F.2d 1005, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and POWELL and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined, post, p. 465 U. S. 841.

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