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UNITED CONSTRUCTION WORKERS ET AL. v. LABURNUM CONSTRUCTION CORP.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: June 7, 1954.

UNITED CONSTRUCTION WORKERS ET AL
v.
LABURNUM CONSTRUCTION CORP.

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA.

Warren, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Minton; Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Burton

[ 347 U.S. Page 657]

 MR. JUSTICE BURTON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question before us is whether the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947,*fn1 has given the National Labor Relations Board such exclusive jurisdiction over the subject matter of a common-law tort action for damages as to preclude an appropriate state court from hearing and determining its issues where such conduct constitutes an unfair labor practice under that Act. For the reasons hereafter stated, we hold that it has not.

November 16, 1949, Laburnum Construction Corporation, a Virginia corporation, respondent herein, filed a notice of motion for judgment in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, Virginia, against petitioners United Construction Workers, affiliated with United Mine Workers of America; District 50, United Mine Workers of America; and United Mine Workers of America. The proceeding was a common-law tort action for compensatory and punitive damages totaling $500,000. The notice contained substantially the following allegations: While respondent was performing construction work in Breathitt County, Kentucky, under contracts with Pond Creek Pocahontas Company and others, July

[ 347 U.S. Page 65826]

     -August 4, 1949, agents of the respective petitioners came there. They demanded that respondent's employees join the United Construction Workers and that respondent recognize that organization as the sole bargaining agent for respondent's employees on the project. They added that, if respondent and its employees did not comply, respondent would not be allowed to continue its work. Upon respondent's refusal and that of many of its employees to yield to such demands, petitioners' agents threatened and intimidated respondent's officers and employees with violence to such a degree that respondent was compelled to abandon all its projects in that area. The notice further alleged that, as the result of this conduct of petitioners' agents, respondent was deprived of substantial profits it otherwise would have earned on those and other projects. After trial, a jury found petitioners jointly and severally liable to respondent for $175,437.19 as compensatory damages, and $100,000 as punitive damages, making a total of $275,437.19.

Petitioners moved for a new trial claiming numerous errors of law, and for a dismissal on the ground that the Labor Management Relations Act had deprived the court of its jurisdiction over the subject matter. Both motions were overruled and the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia granted a writ of error and supersedeas. After argument, it struck out $146,111.10 of the compensatory damages and affirmed the judgment for the remaining $129,326.09. 194 Va. 872, 75 S. E. 2d 694. Because of the importance of the jurisdictional issue to the enforcement of common-law rights and to the administration of the Labor Management Relations Act, we granted certiorari limited to the following question:

"'In view of the type of conduct found by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia to have been carried out by Petitioners, does the National Labor

[ 347 U.S. Page 659]

     Relations Board have exclusive jurisdiction over the subject matter so as to preclude the State Court from hearing and determining the issues in a common-law tort action based upon this conduct?'" 346 U.S. 936.*fn2

We are concerned only with the above-stated jurisdictional question. We accept the view of the National Labor Relations Board that respondent's activities affect interstate commerce within the meaning of the Labor Management Relations Act.*fn3 The "type of conduct found by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia" is

[ 347 U.S. Page 660]

     set out in the margin.*fn4 Although the notice for judgment does not mention the Labor Management Relations Act or unfair labor practices as such, we assume the conduct

[ 347 U.S. Page 661]

     before us also constituted an unfair labor practice within the following provisions of that Act:

"SEC. 8. . . .

"(b) It shall be an unfair labor practice for a labor organization or its agents --

"(1) to restrain or coerce (A) employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7: . . . ."

[ 347 U.S. Page 66261]

     Stat. 140, 141, 29 U. S. C. (1952 ed.) § 158 (b)(1)(A).

"SEC. 7. Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives

[ 347 U.S. Page 663]

     of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities . . . ." 61 Stat. 140, 29 U. S. C. (1952 ed.) § 157.

Petitioners contend that the Act of 1947 has occupied the labor relations field so completely that no regulatory agency other than the National Labor Relations Board and no court may assert jurisdiction over unfair labor practices as defined by it, unless expressly authorized by Congress to do so. They claim that state courts accordingly are excluded not only from enjoining future unfair labor practices and thus colliding with the Board, as occurred in Garner v. Teamsters Union, 346 U.S. 485, but that state courts are excluded also from entertaining common-law tort actions for the recovery of damages caused by such conduct. The latter exclusion is the issue here. In the Garner case, Congress had provided a federal administrative remedy, supplemented by judicial procedure for its enforcement, with which the state injunctive procedure conflicted.*fn5 Here Congress has neither provided nor suggested any substitute for the

[ 347 U.S. Page 664]

     traditional state court procedure for collecting damages for injuries caused by tortious conduct. For us to cut off the injured respondent from this right of recovery will deprive it of its property without recourse or compensation. To do so will, in effect, grant petitioners immunity from liability for their tortious conduct. We see no substantial reason for reaching such a result. The contrary view is consistent with the language of the Act and there is positive support for it in our decisions and in the legislative history of the Act.

In the Garner case, we said:

"The national Labor Management Relations Act, as we have before pointed out, leaves much to the states, though Congress has refrained from telling us how much. We must spell out from conflicting indications of congressional will the area in which state action is still permissible.

"This is not an instance of injurious conduct which the National Labor Relations Board is without express power to prevent and which therefore either is 'governable by the State or it is entirely ungoverned.' In such cases we have declined to find an implied exclusion of state powers. International Union v. Wisconsin Board, 336 U.S. 245, 254. Nor is this a case of mass picketing, threatening of employees, obstructing streets and highways, or picketing homes. We have held that the state still may exercise 'its historic powers over such traditionally local matters as public safety and order and the use of streets and highways.' Allen-Bradley Local v. Wisconsin Board, 315 U.S. 740, 749." 346 U.S., at 488.

[ 347 U.S. Page 665]

     To the extent that Congress prescribed preventive procedure against unfair labor practices, that case recognized that the Act excluded conflicting state procedure to the same end. To the extent, however, that Congress has not prescribed procedure for dealing with the consequences of tortious conduct already committed, there is no ground for concluding that existing criminal penalties or liabilities for tortious conduct have been eliminated. The care we took in the Garner case to demonstrate the existing conflict between state and federal administrative remedies in that case was, itself, a recognition that if no conflict had existed, the state procedure would have survived. The primarily private nature of claims for damages under state law also distinguishes them in a measure from the public nature of the regulation of future labor relations under federal law.

The Labor Management Relations Act sets up no general compensatory procedure except in such minor supplementary ways as the reinstatement of wrongfully discharged employees with back pay. 61 Stat. 147, 29 U. S. C. (1952 ed.) § 160 (c). See also, Labor Board v. Electrical Workers, 346 U.S. 464.

One instance in which the Act prescribes judicial procedure for the recovery of damages caused by unfair labor practices is that with reference to the jurisdiction of federal and other courts to adjudicate claims for damages resulting from secondary boycotts. In that instance the Act expressly authorizes a recovery of damages in any Federal District Court and "in any other court having jurisdiction of the parties."*fn6 By this provision, the Act assures uniformity, otherwise lacking, in rights of

[ 347 U.S. Page 666]

     recovery in the state courts and grants jurisdiction to the federal courts without respect to the amount in controversy. To recover damages under that section is consistent with the existence of jurisdiction in state courts to enforce criminal penalties and common-law liabilities generally. On the other hand, it is not consistent to say that Congress, in that section, authorizes court action for the recovery of damages caused by tortious conduct related to secondary boycotts and yet, without express mention of it, Congress abolishes all common-law rights to recover damages caused more directly and flagrantly through such conduct as is before us.

Considerable legislative history supports this interpretation. Under the National Labor Relations Act, 1935,*fn7 there were no prohibitions of unfair labor practices on the part of labor organizations. Yet there is no doubt that if agents of such organizations at that time had damaged property through their tortious conduct, the persons responsible would have been liable to a tort action in state courts for the damage done. See Allen-Bradley Local v. Wisconsin Board, 315 U.S. 740.

The 1947 Act has increased, rather than decreased, the legal responsibilities of labor organizations. Certainly that Act did not expressly relieve labor organizations from liability for unlawful conduct. It sought primarily to empower a federal regulatory body, through administrative procedure, to forestall unfair labor practices by anyone in circumstances affecting interstate commerce. The fact that it prescribed new preventive procedure against unfair labor practices on the part of labor organizations was an additional recognition of congressional

[ 347 U.S. Page 667]

     disapproval of such practices. Such an express recognition is consistent with an increased insistence upon the liability of such organizations for tortious conduct and inconsistent with their immunization from liability for damages caused by their tortious practices.*fn8

The language declaring the congressional policy against such practices is phrased in terms of their prevention:

"SEC. 10. (a) The Board is empowered, as hereinafter provided, to prevent any person from engaging in any unfair labor practice (listed in section 8) affecting commerce. This power shall not be affected by any other means of adjustment or prevention that has been or may be established by agreement, law, or otherwise: . . . ." 61 Stat. 146, 29 U. S. C. (1952 ed.) § 160 (a).*fn9

Section 10 (c) directs the Board to issue a cease-and-desist order after an appropriate finding of fact. There is no declaration that this procedure is to be exclusive.

[ 347 U.S. Page 668]

     The history of the enactment of § 8 (b)(1)(A) lends further support to this interpretation. Senate Report No. 105, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. 50, as to S. 1126, said in part:

"Since this bill establishes the principle of unfair labor practices on the part of unions, we can see no reason whatever why they should not be subject to the same rules as the employers. The committee heard many instances of union coercion of employees such as that brought about by threats of reprisal against employees and their families in the course of organizing campaigns; also direct interference by mass picketing and other violence. Some of these acts are illegal under State law, but we see no reason why they should not also constitute unfair labor practices to be investigated by the National Labor Relations Board, and at least deprive the violators of any protection furnished by the Wagner Act." (Emphasis added.)

Senator Taft, one of the sponsors of the bill, added later:

[ 347 U.S. Page 669]

     " But suppose there is duplication in extreme cases; suppose there is a threat of violence constituting violation of the law of the State. Why should it not be an unfair labor practice? It is on the part of the employer. If an employer proceeds to use violence, as employers once did, if they use the kind of goon-squad tactics labor unions are permitted to use -- and they once did -- if they threaten men with physical violence if they join a union, they are subject to State law, and they are also subject to be proceeded against for violating the National Labor Relations Act. There is no reason in the world why Page 669} there should not be two remedies for an act of that kind." (Emphasis added.) 93 Cong. Rec. 4024.*fn10

If Virginia is denied jurisdiction in this case, it will mean that where the federal preventive administrative procedures are impotent or inadequate, the offenders, by coercion of the type found here, may destroy property without liability for the damage done. If petitioners were unorganized private persons, conducting themselves as petitioners did here, Virginia would have had undoubted jurisdiction of this action against them. The fact that petitioners are labor organizations, with no contractual relationship with respondent or its employees, provides no reasonable basis for a different conclusion.*fn11

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia is, therefore sustained and its judgment

Affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Disposition

194 Va. 872, 75 S. E. 2d 694, affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, with whom MR. JUSTICE BLACK concurs, dissenting.

If this labor organizer had committed murder on the picket line, he would, of course, be subject to prosecution

[ 347 U.S. Page 670]

     by Virginia. For the federal Act in no way deals with such conduct and there may be doubt if constitutionally it could do so, at least in such a way as to supersede local law.

The present case is different. The labor organizer's conduct that has led to this judgment for damages is conduct with which the federal Act specifically deals. On the facts found by the state court, the labor organizer and the union have committed an unfair labor practice under § 8 (b)(1)(A), by using threats and the force of a picket line to make employees join a union, contrary to their desires. A state court or a state labor board could not enjoin that conduct, as Garner v. Teamsters Union, 346 U.S. 485, teaches. And I think like reasons preclude a State from applying other sanctions to it.

This conduct is the stuff out of which labor-management strife has been made, ever since trade unionism began its growth. For years the law of the jungle applied, victory going to the strongest. The emergence of more civilized methods of settling these disputes is familiar history. At first, the law was mostly on the side of management. The courts, as well as the legislatures, shaped the rules against the interests of labor. Gradually the human rights in industry were recognized until they finally received more generous recognition under the Wagner Act.

That Act subjected these industrial disputes to settlement and adjudication in administrative proceedings. For example, the administrative agency was granted power to forbid employers from interfering with trade-union activities. May a union not only institute proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board but sue the employer as well? Or may it have a choice of remedies? I would think not. But if the union may not sue the employer for the tortious conduct, why may the employer sue the union?

[ 347 U.S. Page 671]

     I think that for each wrong which the federal Act recognizes the parties have only the remedy supplied by that Act -- and for a simple reason. The federal Act was designed to decide labor-management controversies, to bring them to a peaceful, orderly settlement, to put the parties on the basis of equality which the rules designed by Congress envisaged.*fn* If the parties not only have the remedy Congress provided but the right to sue for damages as well, the controversy is not settled by what the federal agency does. It drags on and on in the courts, keeping old wounds open, and robbing the administrative remedy of the healing effects it was intended to have.


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