United Steelworkers v. Rawson
495 U.S. 362 (1990)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United Steelworkers v. Rawson, 495 U.S. 362 (1990)

United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Rawson,

No. 89-322

Argued March 26, 1990

Decided May 14, 1990

495 U.S. 362

Syllabus

Respondents, deceased miners' survivors, filed a state law wrongful death action in Idaho state court against petitioner Union, the miners' exclusive bargaining agent, alleging that the miners' deaths in an underground fire were proximately caused by the Union's fraudulent and negligent acts in connection with mine safety inspections conducted by its representatives pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement with the mine's operator. On remand from a State Supreme Court decision that the claims were not preempted by federal labor law, the trial court granted summary judgment for the Union. It found that the record was devoid of evidence supporting the fraud claim, and urged the State Supreme Court to reconsider its decision that the negligence claim was not preempted. The State Supreme Court upheld the trial court's summary judgment on the fraud claim, but again concluded that respondents' negligence claim was not preempted. Distinguishing this Court's decision in Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck,471 U. S. 202 -- which held that a state law tort action against an employer may be preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, if the duty to the employee that was violated by the tort is created by a collective bargaining agreement and without existence independent of the agreement -- the court found that the instant agreement's provisions did "not require interpretation, . . . but rather . . . determine[d] only the nature and scope of the Union's duty." This Court vacated the State Supreme Court's judgment and remanded the case for further consideration in light of Electrical Workers v. Hechler,481 U. S. 851, which extended Allis-Chalmers to a tort suit by an employee against her union. On remand, the State Supreme Court distinguished Hechler on the ground that, there, the alleged duty of care arose from the collective bargaining agreement, whereas, here, the Union's duty to perform the inspection reasonably arose from the fact of the inspection itself rather than the fact that the provision for the Union's participation in the inspection was contained in the labor contract. Since it was conceded that the Union undertook to inspect, the court noted, the sole issue was whether that inspection was negligent under state tort law.

Page 495 U. S. 363

Held:

1. Respondents' tort claim is preempted by § 301. The claim cannot be described as independent of the collective bargaining agreement, since the Union's representatives were participating in the inspection process pursuant to that agreement's provisions. Thus, if the Union failed to perform a duty in connection with the inspection, it was a duty arising out of the agreement signed by the Union as the miners' bargaining agent, not a duty of reasonable care owed to every person in society. Preemption by federal law cannot be avoided by characterizing the Union's negligence as a state law tort. Pp. 495 U. S. 368-372.

2. Respondents may not maintain a § 301 suit against the Union. Pp. 495 U. S. 372-376.

(a) Mere negligence, even in the enforcement of a collective bargaining agreement, does not state a claim for breach of the duty of fair representation, which is a purposely limited check on the arbitrary exercise of union power. While a union may assume a responsibility toward employees by accepting a duty of care through a collective bargaining agreement, Hechler, supra, at 481 U. S. 860, if an employee claims that a union owes him a more far-reaching duty, he must be able to point to language in the agreement specifically indicating an intent to create obligations enforceable against the union by the individual employees. Nothing in the agreement at issue suggests that it creates such obligations, since the pertinent part of the agreement consists of agreements between the Union and the employer, and is enforceable only by them. Pp. 495 U. S. 372-375.

(b) Moreover, under traditional principles of contract interpretation, respondents have no claim, for, as third-party beneficiaries, they have no greater rights in the agreement than does the promisee, the employer. Here, the employer has no enforceable right as promisee. The agreement provisions respondents rely on are not promises made by the Union to the employer. Rather, the limited surrender of the employer's exclusive authority over mine safety is a concession made by the employer to the Union. P. 495 U. S. 375.

(c) Although respondents' claim that the Union had committed fraud on the membership in violation of state law might implicate the duty of fair representation, respondents did not cross-petition for review of the State Supreme Court's holding that summary judgment was properly entered on this claim. P. 495 U. S. 376.

115 Idaho 785, 770 P.2d 794, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J.,

Page 495 U. S. 364

filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 495 U. S. 376.

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