Clayton v. Automobile Workers,
451 U.S. 679 (1981)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Clayton v. Automobile Workers, 451 U.S. 679 (1981)

Clayton v. International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace &

Agricultural Implement Workers of America

No. 80-5049

Argued March 4, 1981

Decided May 26, 1981*

451 U.S. 679


After being discharged for violation of his employer's plant rule prohibiting defined misbehavior, an employee, pursuant to the grievance and arbitration procedure mandated by the collective bargaining agreement between the employer and respondent union, asked his union representative to file a grievance on his behalf on the ground that his dismissal was not for just cause. The union pursued the grievance through the third step of the grievance procedure and requested arbitration, but it then withdrew the request. The union constitution required union members aggrieved by any action of the union to exhaust the internal union appeals procedures before seeking redress from a court. The employee, however, instead of filing an appeal from the union's decision not to seek arbitration of his grievance, filed an action in Federal District Court under § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, alleging that the union had breached its duty of fair representation, and that the employer had breached the collective bargaining agreement by discharging him without just cause. He sought reinstatement from the employer and monetary relief from both the employer and the union. The District Court sustained the union and the employer's affirmative defense that the employee had failed to exhaust the internal union appeals procedures, and accordingly dismissed the suit against both the union and the employer. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the suit against the union, but reversed the dismissal against the employer. The court held that the employee's failure to exhaust was fatal to his claim against the union because, by filing an internal appeal, he might have received money damages, the relief he sought in his § 301 suit against the union. But the court held that the employee's failure to exhaust did not bar his suit against the employer, because the internal appeals procedures

Page 451 U. S. 680

could not result in either reinstatement of his job, the relief sought from the employer under § 301(a), or reactivation of his grievance.

Held: Where the internal union appeals procedures could not reactivate the employee's grievance or grant him the complete relief he sought under § 301(a), he should not have been required to exhaust such procedures prior to bringing suit against the union and the employer under § 301(a). Pp. 451 U. S. 685-696.

(a) Because internal union appeals procedures, in contrast to contractual grievance and arbitration procedures negotiated by the parties to a collective bargaining agreement, are created by the union constitution and are designed to settle disputes between an employee and his union arising under the constitution, the policies encouraging private resolution of grievances arising out of the collective bargaining process are not directly applicable to the issue whether to require exhaustion of internal union procedures. Republic Steel Corp. v. Maddox, 379 U. S. 650, distinguished. Such policies are furthered by an exhaustion requirement only where the internal procedures can either grant the aggrieved employee full relief or reactivate his grievance. Pp. 451 U. S. 685-689.

(b) If the internal procedures are inadequate to effect the relief sought by the employee, his failure to exhaust should be excused, and he should be permitted to pursue his claim for breach of the duty of fair representation and breach of the collective bargaining agreement in court under § 301. Here, although it appears that some monetary relief could be obtained through the internal procedures, it also appears that the union could neither reinstate the employee in his job nor reactivate his grievance because of certain time restrictions in the collective bargaining agreement for obtaining arbitration of a grievance. These restrictions on the relief available through the internal procedures rendered such procedures inadequate. The policy underlying § 301 to effect a relatively rapid disposition of labor disputes would be undermined by an exhaustion requirement unless the internal procedures are capable of either reactivating the employee's grievance or of redressing it. Pp. 451 U. S. 689-693.

(c) Although the argument that exhaustion of internal procedures should be required might have force if the employee's § 301 suit is only against the union and the internal procedures are adequate to grant the relief sought against the union, the defense should not be available where, as here, the employee sued both the union and the employer. If a trial court required exhaustion of the internal procedures with respect to the suit against the union but not against the employer, it would be faced with the undesirable alternatives of either staying the suit against the employer pending such exhaustion, thus

Page 451 U. S. 681

violating national labor policy, or of permitting the suit against the employer to proceed and tolling the statute of limitations against the union pending exhaustion, with the possible result that the court would find itself with two separate § 301 suits based on the same facts proceeding at different paces in its courtroom. Pp. 451 U. S. 694-695.

623 F.2d 563, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 696. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART and POWELL, JJ., joined, post, p. 451 U. S. 698.

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