A statutory answer to a constitutional question
on Dec 11, 2009 at 9:14 pm
In Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a railroad company involved in a dispute with its labor union asked the Court to decide whether a federal court could set aside a decision by the National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) on the ground that the NRAB had violated due process when it dismissed the unionâ€™s claims â€œfor lack of jurisdiction.â€Â In a unanimous decision delivered Tuesday by Justice Ginsburg, the Court declined to reach that question and instead affirmed the decision below on the ground that the NRABâ€™s refusal to adjudicate the unionâ€™s claims on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction violated the Railway Labor Act (RLA).
The RLA establishes a process for adjudication of labor disputes by which unions and railroads must first meet in â€œon-property proceedingsâ€ to exhaust grievance procedures specified in their collective-bargaining agreements.Â Before seeking arbitration before NRAB panels, the two sides must also attempt to settle their disputes by â€œconferencing.â€Â Decisions by the NRAB are binding and may only be appealed to federal courts on three limited grounds, one of which is the â€œfailure of the [Boardâ€™s] order to conform, or confine itself, to matters within the scope of the divisionâ€™s jurisdiction.â€
Following on-property negotiations between Union Pacific and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (the Union), the Union sought arbitration before the NRAB.Â Both parties, however, initially neglected to provide the NRAB with proof that they had already conferenced on the dispute.Â The NRAB subsequently dismissed the unionâ€™s grievance â€œfor want of jurisdictionâ€; in its view, conducting a de novo review of the conferencing evidence would exceed its mandate.Â The Union sought review in federal district court, which affirmed the NRAB decision; on appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the NRABâ€™s dismissal of the Unionâ€™s claims violated due process.
In its opinion, the Court emphasized the difference between the Unionâ€™s statutory claim and the constitutional concerns on which the lower courtâ€™s decision relied.Â Although it agreed with the result reached by the Seventh Circuit â€“ that is, that the NRAB should not have dismissed the Unionâ€™s claims â€“ the Court held that the proper focus was on the RLA rather than the Due Process Clause.Â Turning to the statute, the Court explained that judicial review will be precluded as long as the Board â€œconform[s], or confine[s] itself, to matters [Congress placed] within the scope of [NRAB] jurisdiction.â€Â However, when it improperly deemed the Unionâ€™s failure to submit proof of conferencing as a â€œjurisdictional,â€ rather than â€œclaims-processing,â€ obstacle, and thus dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction, the NRAB, paradoxically, failed to â€œconform, or confine itselfâ€ to matters within its jurisdiction.Â Put another way, because Congress had not given the NRAB â€œauthority to adopt rules of jurisdictional dimension,â€ the very act of defining the proof-of-conferencing issue as â€œjurisdictionalâ€ violated the NRABâ€™s governing statutes under the RLA. Therefore, the NRABâ€™s decision was subject to judicial review under the RLA, and the the Seventh Circuitâ€™s decision in favor of the Union was affirmed, albeit on a different ground.Â Moreover, the Court continued, because the Union was able to prevail on statutory grounds, there is â€œno due process issue aliveâ€ in the dispute.
Although the Court declined to reach the constitutional questions posed in the case â€“ that is, whether the proof-of-conferencing issue was â€œjurisdictional,â€ and whether the NRABâ€™s subsequent dismissal of the Unionâ€™s claims was incompatible with due process â€“ the opinion did note that the case nonetheless allowed it to address an important matter: the confusion â€œover matters properly typed â€˜jurisdictional.â€™â€ This confusion, the Court wrote, â€œcloud[s] court as well as Board decisions,â€ and by defining the leeway adjudication boards have to interpret this term, the Court may have significantly affected the existing relationship between arbitrators and federal courts.