1. An action brought by the United States under the Walsh-Healey
Act to recover liquidated damages from a government contractor who
knowingly employed child labor in violation of the Act is subject
to the two-year statute of limitations contained in § 6 of the
Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947. Pp. 345 U. S.
2. Within the meaning of § 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act, the
cause of action in this case "accrued" when the minors were
employed, not when it had been administratively determined that the
contractor was liable to the United States for liquidated damages.
Pp. 345 U. S.
3. That the power of the United States to safeguard the public
interest may be prejudiced does not justify a construction of the
statute at war with its clear and unambiguous words. P. 66.
4. For the purpose of § 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act, an action
is commenced on the date when the complaint in the lawsuit is
filed, not when the administrative proceedings under the
Walsh-Healey Act are initiated. P. 345 U. S.
196 F.2d 264, reversed.
An action brought against petitioner by the United States under
the Walsh-Healey Act was dismissed by the District Court as barred
by limitations. 99 F. Supp. 155. The Court of Appeals reversed. 196
F.2d 264. This Court granted certiorari. 344 U.S. 862.
p. 345 U. S.
Page 345 U. S. 60
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an action brought by the United States to recover
liquidated damages under the Walsh-Healey Act. 49 Stat. 2036, as
amended, 41 U.S.C. § 35 et seq.
That Act provides that a
contractor furnishing the Government materials, supplies, etc., in
an amount exceeding $10,000 must meet specified labor standards.
Thus, child labor and convict labor are prohibited, § 1(d), under
the sanction of $10 a day for each day any minor or convict is
employed plus any underpayment of wages, payable as liquidated
damages. § 2. These sums of money owing the United States may be
withheld from amounts due on the contracts or may be recovered in
suits brought in the name of the United States by the Attorney
General. § 2. The Secretary of Labor administers the Act,
§ 4; Endicott Johnson Corp. v. Perkins,
317 U. S. 501
317 U. S. 507
making investigations and findings, § 4, and issuing complaints and
holding hearings. § 5.
On April 17, 1947, the Secretary of Labor issued a complaint
charging petitioner with having knowingly employed child labor
during the years 1942-1945 in violation of the Act. On February 25,
1949, a Hearing Examiner made a decision in which he found that
petitioner had knowingly employed child labor in violation of the
Act and was indebted to the United States in the sum of $15,600 as
liquidated damages. Under the Rules of Practice of the Department
of Labor, that decision became final at the end of the twenty-day
period within which petitioner had an opportunity to petition the
Chief Hearing Examiner for review.
Nearly a year later -- January 27, 1950 -- this action was
brought. The answer tendered as a defense the two-year statute of
limitations contained in § 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947,
61 Stat. 84, 87, 29 U.S.C. (Supp. V) § 255. Both parties moved for
Page 345 U. S. 61
The District Court granted petitioner's motion, holding that the
cause of action arose when petitioner violated the statute, and
that the two-year statute of limitations began to run from the
date. 99 F. Supp. 155. The Court of Appeals reversed, 196 F.2d 264,
holding that actions brought by the United States to enforce the
child labor provisions of the Walsh-Healey Act are not barred by
the two-year limitation period of § 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act.
The case is here on certiorari because of a conflict between that
decision and Lance, Inc. v. United States,
190 F.2d 204,
and United States v. Lovknit Mfg. Co.,
189 F.2d 454, from
the Courts of Appeals of the Fourth and Fifth Circuits
Section 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act provides a two-year
statute of limitations for any action commenced on or after the
date of the Act
"to enforce any cause of action for unpaid minimum wages, unpaid
overtime compensation, or liquidated damages, under the Fair Labor
Standards Act of 1938, as amended, the Walsh-Healey Act, or the
Section 6 also provides that "every such action shall be forever
barred unless commenced within two years after the cause of action
The Portal-to-Portal Act was enacted to remedy what were deemed
to be some harsh results of our decision in Anderson v. Mt.
Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U. S. 680
which held that time necessarily spent by employees walking to work
on the employer's premises and in preliminary activities after
arriving at their places of work was working time within the scope
of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 52 Stat. 1060, 63 Stat. 910, 29
U.S.C. § 201 et seq.
The suits instituted by employees,
the amounts claimed, and their threatened impact on business caused
Congress to act. See
H.R.Rep.No.71, 80th Cong., 1st Sess.;
S.Rep.No.48, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. The consequences feared from
Anderson v. Mt.
Page 345 U. S. 62
Clemens Pottery Co., supra,
were summarized in § 1(a)
of the Portal-to-Portal Act. [Footnote 1
] None of these referred to the liquidated
damage provisions of the Walsh-Healey Act. None, in fact, referred
to its child labor provisions.
Page 345 U. S. 63
That is the start of the argument made by respondent and adopted
by the Court of Appeals, to the effect that Congress, in the
Portal-to-Portal Act, had no intention to legislate with respect to
the child labor provisions of the Walsh-Healey Act, but had in mind
only possible suits which employees might bring for unpaid minimum
wages and overtime.
We do not stop to lay out the entire legislative history of the
Portal-to-Portal Act. For the words Congress used in § 6 are too
precise for extended argument. Three causes of action are covered
-- claims for "unpaid minimum wages," claims for "unpaid overtime
compensation," and claims for "liquidated damages" under three
Acts, including the Walsh-Healey Act. The only "liquidated damages"
collectible under the Walsh-Healey Act are collectible by the
United States. That marks a difference between that Act and the
Fair Labor Standards Act. For, under the latter, employees may
bring suits for double the amount of unpaid wages, plus costs and
attorneys' fees. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). That is doubtless why § 1(a)
of the Portal-to-Portal Act, after summarizing the great burden on
employers of the pending employee claims, states that
"all of the results which have arisen or may arise under the
Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 . . . may (except as to liability
for liquidated damages) arise with respect to the Walsh-Healey"
Act, and that "it is therefore in the national public interest .
. . that this Act shall apply to the Walsh-Healey Act. . . ." That
statement does no more than emphasize the difference of the problem
of liquidated damages under the two Acts. The fact remains that the
Portal-to-Portal Act treats claims for "liquidated damages" under
the Walsh-Healey Act precisely the same as it does claims for
"liquidated damages" under the Fair Labor Standards Act, even
though the former are enforced exclusively by the Government, the
latter by the employees. Perhaps that does not make
Page 345 U. S. 64
for an harmonious whole. Perhaps Congress misconceived the
problems under the Walsh-Healey Act. [Footnote 2
] However that may be, the present cause of
action seems to be precisely described by and expressly included in
the words "liquidated damages under the . . . Walsh-Healey Act." If
this cause of action is not covered by that language, apparently
none other is. [Footnote 3
is not for us then to try to avoid the conclusion that that
Congress did not mean what it said. Arguments of policy are
relevant when, for example, a statute has an hiatus that must be
filled, or there are ambiguities in the legislative language that
must be resolved. But when Congress, though perhaps mistakenly or
inadvertently, has used language which plainly brings a subject
matter into a statute, its word is final -- save for questions of
constitutional power which have not even been intimated here.
Page 345 U. S. 65
Respondent argues that, even if this cause of action is subject
to the two-year statute of limitations contained in § 6 of the
Portal-to-Portal Act, the present suit was timely. The contention
is that the cause of action accrues, and the two-year period begins
to run, only after it is administratively determined by the
Department of Labor that the contractor is liable to the United
States for liquidated damages. If that contention is sound, the
judgment below must stand, as this suit was begun less than two
years after the conclusion of the administrative proceedings.
We take the opposing view. We conclude that "the cause of action
accrued" within the meaning of § 6 of the Portal-to-Portal Act when
the minors were employed. That was the violation of the
Walsh-Healey Act giving rise to the liability for liquidated
damages. It is true that the administration of the Act is entrusted
in large measure to the Secretary of Labor. See Endicott
Johnson Corp. v. Perkins, supra.
He has broad investigatory
and hearing powers. §§ 4, 5. He has authority to proscribe those
who have violated the Act, barring them from Government contracts
for three years. § 3. Moneys withheld as liquidated damages are
placed in a special fund and paid on order of the Secretary of
Labor to the employees. § 2. These powers of the Secretary,
important as they are in determining the relation between the
courts and the administrative branch of government, Endicott
Johnson Corp. v. Perkins, supra,
are irrelevant to the narrow
question of law that is presented. A cause of action is created
when there is a breach of duty owed the plaintiff. It is that
breach of duty, not its discovery, that normally is controlling.
Section 2 of the Walsh-Healey Act provides that the Attorney
General may bring suit to recover moneys owed the United
Page 345 U. S. 66
States. [Footnote 4
fact that due deference to the administrative process should make a
court hold its hand until the administrative proceedings before the
Secretary of Labor have been completed, Far East Conference v.
United States, 342 U. S. 570
Thompson v. Texas Mexican R. Co., 328 U.
; General American Tank Corp. v. El Dorado
Terminal Co., 308 U. S. 422
308 U. S. 423
United States v. Morgan, 307 U. S. 183
a matter of judicial administration, and of no relevancy here. The
statutory liability accrued when the minors were employed. It was
from that date that the period of limitations began to run.
This construction, it is said, will prejudice the power of the
United States to safeguard the public interest. But if there is
prejudice, it is the result of the Portal-to-Portal Act, which
Congress, having made, can refashion.
There is the final argument that the action was, in any event,
commenced when the administrative proceedings were initiated.
Section 7 of the Portal-to-Portal Act provides that "an action is
commenced for the purposes of section 6 . . . on the date when the
complaint is filed." It is argued that the issuance of a formal
complaint in the administrative proceedings (the customary
procedure in Walsh-Healey cases) is the commencement of an action
in the statutory sense. Congress, however, when it wrote § 7, was
addressing itself to law suits in the conventional sense.
Commencement of an action by the filing of a complaint has too
familiar a history, and the purpose of §§ 6 and 7 was too obvious,
for us to assume that Congress did not mean to use the words in
their ordinary sense.
"SECTION 1. (a) The Congress hereby finds that the Fair Labor
Standards Act of 1938, as amended, has been interpreted judicially
in disregard of long established customs, practices, and contracts
between employers and employees, thereby creating wholly unexpected
liabilities, immense in amount and retroactive in operation, upon
employers, with the results that, if said Act as so interpreted or
claims arising under such interpretations were permitted to stand,
(1) the payment of such liabilities would bring about financial
ruin of many employers and seriously impair the capital resources
of many others, thereby resulting in the reduction of industrial
operations, halting of expansion and development, curtailing
employment, and the caring power of employees; (2) the credit of
many employers would be seriously impaired; (3) there would be
created both an extended and continuous uncertainty on the part of
industry, both employer and employee, as to the financial condition
of productive establishments and a gross inequality of competitive
conditions between employers and between industries; (4) employees
would receive windfall payments, including liquidated damages, of
sums for activities performed by them without any expectation of
reward beyond that included in their agreed rates of pay; (5) there
would occur the promotion of increasing demands for payment to
employees for engaging in activities no compensation for which had
been contemplated by either the employer or employee at the time
they were engaged in; (6) voluntary collective bargaining would be
interfered with and industrial disputes between employees and
employers and between employees and employees would be created; (7)
the courts of the country would be burdened with excessive and
needless litigation and champertous practices would be encouraged;
(8) the Public Treasury would be deprived of large sums of revenues
and public finances would be seriously deranged by claims against
Public Treasury for refunds of taxes already paid; (9) the cost to
the Government of goods and services heretofore and hereafter
purchased by its various departments and agencies would be
unreasonably increased and the Public Treasury would be seriously
affected by consequent increased cost of war contracts, and (10)
serious and adverse effects upon the revenues of Federal, State,
and local governments would occur."
See, for example,
"The Walsh-Healey Act also concerns itself in its field with
minimum wages and overtime compensation. The Bacon-Davis Act has
provisions relating to minimum wages and other conditions of
employment. These two acts are therefore affected by the Mount
decision. The situation described herein as to the
Fair Labor Standards Act applies to that existing under the
Walsh-Healey Act and the Bacon-Davis Act. The same necessity exists
there for remedial legislation."
We do not reach the question whether employees have standing to
sue under the Walsh-Healey Act. No provision, however, is made for
their recovery of liquidated damages. The following provision
relates to their rights:
"All sums withheld or recovered as deductions, rebates, refunds,
or underpayments of wages shall be held in a special deposit
account, and shall be paid, on order of the Secretary of Labor,
directly to the employees who have been paid less than minimum
rates of pay as set forth in such contracts and on whose account
such sums were withheld or recovered: Provided,
claims by employees for such payments shall be entertained unless
made within one year from the date of actual notice to the
contractor of the withholding or recovery of such sums by the
United States of America."
Section 2 provides in pertinent part:
"Any sums of money due to the United States of America by reason
of any violation of any of the representations and stipulations of
said contract set forth in section 1 hereof may be withheld from
any amounts due on any such contracts or may be recovered in suits
brought in the name of the United States of America by the Attorney