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U.S. Supreme Court

Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731 (1983)

Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB

No. 81-2257

Argued March 29, 1983

Decided May 31, 1983

461 U.S. 731


After one Helton, a waitress at petitioner's restaurant, filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleging that she had been fired because of her efforts to organize a union, Helton and others, including other waitresses, picketed the restaurant and distributed leaflets. Petitioner and three of its co-owners then filed a suit for damages and injunctive relief against Helton and the other demonstrators in an Arizona state court, alleging that the defendants had harassed customers, blocked access to the restaurant, created a threat to public safety, and libeled plaintiffs by false statements in the leaflets. On the following day, Helton filed a second charge with the NLRB, alleging, inter alia, that petitioner had filed the civil suit in retaliation for the defendants' protected, concerted activities and the filing of charges against petitioner with the NLRB. After a consolidated hearing on the unfair labor practice complaints, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that, "on the basis of the record and from [his] observation of the witnesses," the evidence failed to support the allegations of the complaint in the state court action, and that such action thus lacked a "reasonable basis" and its prosecution was retaliatory, in violation of §§ 8(a)(1) and (4) of the National Labor Relations Act (Act). On petitioner's appeal, the NLRB adopted, with minor exceptions, the ALJ's findings and recommendations, and ordered petitioner to withdraw its state court complaint. The Court of Appeals enforced the NLRB's order.


1. The NLRB may not halt the prosecution of a state court lawsuit, regardless of the plaintiff's motive, unless the suit lacks a reasonable basis in fact or law. Retaliatory motive and lack of reasonable basis are both essential prerequisites to the issuance of a cease-and-desist order against a state suit. Pp. 461 U. S. 740-744.

(a) The filing and prosecution of a well-founded lawsuit may not be enjoined as an unfair labor practice, even if it would not have been commenced but for the plaintiff's desire to retaliate against the defendant for exercising rights protected by the Act. The Act's provisions guaranteeing employees the enjoyment of their rights to unionize, engage

Page 461 U. S. 732

in concerted activity, and utilize the NLRB's processes without fear of coercion or retaliation by their employer are to be liberally construed. However, countervailing considerations against allowing the NLRB to condemn the filing of a suit as an unfair labor practice include the First Amendment right of access to the courts and the States' compelling interests in maintaining domestic peace and protecting its citizens' health and welfare. Thus, the NLRB's interpretation of the Act that the only essential element of a violation by the employer is retaliatory motive in filing a state court suit is untenable. Pp. 461 U. S. 740-743.

(b) However, it is an enjoinable unfair labor practice to prosecute a baseless lawsuit with the intent of retaliating against an employee for the exercise of rights protected by the Act. Such suits are not within the scope of First Amendment protection, and the state interests noted above do not enter into play when the suit has no reasonable basis. Pp. 461 U. S. 743-744.

2. In determining whether a state court suit lacks a reasonable basis, the NLRB is not limited to considering the bare pleadings in the suit, but its inquiry must be structured in a manner that will preserve the state plaintiff's right to have a state court jury or judge resolve genuine material factual or state law legal disputes pertaining to the lawsuit. Therefore, if the NLRB is called upon to determine whether a suit is unlawful prior to the time that the state court renders final judgment, and if the state plaintiff can show that such genuine material factual or legal issues exist, the NLRB must await the results of the state court adjudication with respect to the merits of the state suit. If the state proceedings result in a judgment adverse to the plaintiff, the NLRB may then consider the matter further and, if it is found that the lawsuit was filed with retaliatory intent, the NLRB may find a violation and order appropriate relief. Pp. 461 U. S. 744-747.

3. This case must be returned to the NLRB for further consideration in light of the proper standards. It was not the ALJ's province, based on his own evaluation of the evidence, to determine that the libel and business-interference counts in petitioner's state court suit were in fact without merit. He should have limited his inquiry to the question whether petitioner's evidence raised factual issues that were genuine and material. Furthermore, because, in enforcing the NLRB's order, the Court of Appeals ultimately relied on the fact that "substantial evidence" supported the NLRB's finding that the prosecution of the lawsuit violated the Act, the NLRB's error has not been cured. Pp. 461 U. S. 747-748.

660 F.2d 1335, vacated and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 461 U. S. 750.

Page 461 U. S. 733

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