DELCOSTELLO V. TEAMSTERS, 462 U. S. 151 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

DelCostello v. Teamsters, 462 U.S. 151 (1983)

DelCostello v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters

No. 81-2386

Argued April 25, 1983

Decided June 8, 1983*

462 U.S. 151


The issue in each of these cases is what statute of limitations applies in an employee suit against an employer and a union, alleging the employer's breach of a collective bargaining agreement and the union's breach of its duty of fair representation by mishandling the ensuing grievance or arbitration proceedings. United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Mitchell, 451 U. S. 56, held in a similar suit that an employee's claim against the employer was governed by a state statute of limitations for vacation of an arbitration award, rather than by a state statute for an action for breach of contract, but left open the issues as to what state statute should govern the employee's claim against the union or whether, instead of applying a state statute of limitations, the provisions of § 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act establishing a 6-month limitations period for making charges of unfair labor practices to the National Labor Relations Board should be borrowed. In No. 81-2386, respondent local union brought a formal grievance under the collective bargaining agreement based on petitioner employee's alleged improper discharge. After a hearing, a joint union-management committee informed petitioner of its conclusion that the grievance was without merit, and the committee's determination became final on September 20, 1977. On March 16, 1978, petitioner filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging that the employer had discharged him in violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and that the union had represented him in the grievance procedure in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and perfunctory manner. The District Court ultimately granted summary judgment against petitioner, concluding that Mitchell compelled application of Maryland's 30-day statute of limitations for actions to vacate arbitration awards to both of petitioner's claims. The Court of Appeals affirmed. In No. 81-2408, petitioner local union invoked arbitration after it was unsuccessful in processing respondent employees' grievances based on the employer's alleged violations of the bargaining agreement arising from job-assignment practices. On February

Page 462 U. S. 152

24, 1978, the arbitrator issued an award upholding the employer's job assignments, and on January 19, 1979, respondents filed suit in Federal District Court, alleging that the employer had violated the bargaining agreement, and that the union had violated its duty of fair representation in handling respondents' claims. The District Court, applying New York's 90-day statute of limitations for actions to vacate arbitration awards, dismissed the complaint against both the employer and the union. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals, acting in light of the intervening decision in Mitchell, rejected the contention that § 10(b) should be applied; affirmed the dismissal as to the employer under the 90-day arbitration statute; but reversed as to the union, concluding that New York's 3-year statute for malpractice actions governed.


1. In this type of suit, the 6-month limitations period in § 10(b) governs claims against both the employer and the union. Pp. 158-172.

(a) When, as here, there is no federal statute of limitations expressly applicable to a federal cause of action, it is generally concluded that Congress intended that the courts apply the most closely analogous statute of limitations under state law. However, when adoption of state statutes would be at odds with the purpose or operation of federal substantive law, timeliness rules have been drawn from federal law -- either express limitations periods from related federal statutes, or such alternatives as laches. Auto Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 383 U. S. 696, distinguished. Pp. 462 U. S. 158-163.

(b) An employee's suit against both the employer and the union, such as is involved here, has no close analogy in ordinary state law, and the analogies suggested in Mitchell suffer from flaws of both legal substance and practical application. Typically short state limitations periods for vacating arbitration awards fail to provide the aggrieved employee with a satisfactory opportunity to vindicate his rights, and analogy to an action to vacate an arbitration award is problematic, at best, as applied to the employee's claim against the union. While a state limitations period for legal malpractice is the closest state law analogy for the claim against the union, application of such a limitations period would not solve the problem caused by the too-short time in which the employee could sue the employer, and would preclude the relatively rapid resolution of labor disputes favored by federal law. In contrast, § 10(b)'s 6-month period for filing unfair labor practice charges is designed to accommodate a balance of interests very similar to that at stake here. Both the union's breach of its duty and the employer's breach of the bargaining agreement are often also unfair labor practices. Moreover, in § 10(b),

"Congress established a limitations period attuned to what it viewed as the proper balance between the national interests in stable bargaining relationships and finality of private settlements, and

Page 462 U. S. 153

an employee's interest in setting aside what he views as an unjust settlement under the collective bargaining system."

Mitchell, supra, at 451 U. S. 70-71 (Stewart, J., concurring in judgment). Pp. 462 U. S. 163-172.

2. The judgment in No. 81-2408 is reversed because it is conceded that the suit was filed more than 10 months after respondents' causes of action accrued. However, in No. 81-2386, the judgment is reversed, but the case is remanded, since petitioner contends that certain events tolled the running of the limitations period until about three months before he filed suit, but the District Court, applying a 30-day limitations period, declined to consider any tolling issue. P. 462 U. S. 172.

679 F.2d 879, reversed and remanded; 671 F.2d 87, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., post, p. 462 U. S. 172, and O'CONNOR, J., post, p. 462 U. S. 174, filed dissenting opinions.

Page 462 U. S. 154

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