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A statutory answer to a constitutional question

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 union’s claims “for lack of jurisdiction.”  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 NRAB’s refusal to adjudicate the union’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 “on-property proceedings” to exhaust grievance procedures specified in their collective-bargaining agreements.  Before seeking arbitration before NRAB panels, the two sides must also attempt to settle their disputes by “conferencing.”  Decisions by the NRAB are binding and may only be appealed to federal courts on three limited grounds, one of which is the “failure of the [Board’s] order to conform, or confine itself, to matters within the scope of the division’s jurisdiction.”

Following on-property negotiations between Union Pacific and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (the Union), the Union sought arbitration before the NRAB.  Both parties, however, initially neglected to provide the NRAB with proof that they had already conferenced on the dispute.  The NRAB subsequently dismissed the union’s grievance “for want of jurisdiction”; in its view, conducting a de novo review of the conferencing evidence would exceed its mandate.  The Union sought review in federal district court, which affirmed the NRAB decision; on appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the NRAB’s dismissal of the Union’s claims violated due process.

In its opinion, the Court emphasized the difference between the Union’s statutory claim and the constitutional concerns on which the lower court’s decision relied.  Although it agreed with the result reached by the Seventh Circuit – that is, that the NRAB should not have dismissed the Union’s claims – the Court held that the proper focus was on the RLA rather than the Due Process Clause.  Turning to the statute, the Court explained that judicial review will be precluded as long as the Board “conform[s], or confine[s] itself, to matters [Congress placed] within the scope of [NRAB] jurisdiction.”  However, when it improperly deemed the Union’s failure to submit proof of conferencing as a “jurisdictional,” rather than “claims-processing,” obstacle, and thus dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction, the NRAB, paradoxically, failed to “conform, or confine itself” to matters within its jurisdiction.  Put another way, because Congress had not given the NRAB “authority to adopt rules of jurisdictional dimension,” the very act of defining the proof-of-conferencing issue as “jurisdictional” violated the NRAB’s governing statutes under the RLA. Therefore, the NRAB’s decision was subject to judicial review under the RLA, and the the Seventh Circuit’s decision in favor of the Union was affirmed, albeit on a different ground.  Moreover, the Court continued, because the Union was able to prevail on statutory grounds, there is “no due process issue alive” in the dispute.

Although the Court declined to reach the constitutional questions posed in the case – that is, whether the proof-of-conferencing issue was “jurisdictional,” and whether the NRAB’s subsequent dismissal of the Union’s claims was incompatible with due process – the opinion did note that the case nonetheless allowed it to address an important matter: the confusion “over matters properly typed ‘jurisdictional.’” This confusion, the Court wrote, “cloud[s] court as well as Board decisions,” 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.