IBEW V. HECHLER, 481 U. S. 851 (1987)

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U.S. Supreme Court

IBEW v. Hechler, 481 U.S. 851 (1987)

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, AFL-CIO v. Hechler

No. 85-1360

Argued January 20, 1987

Decided May 26, 1987

481 U.S. 851


Respondent, an electrical apprentice employed by Florida Power and Light Company (Florida Power), was injured while assigned to a job that required her to perform tasks allegedly beyond the scope of her training and experience. She brought suit in a Florida court against petitioner unions (collectively referred to as the Union), alleging that, "pursuant to contracts and agreements" between the Union and Florida Power, "to which . . . [she] was a third-party beneficiary," and "pursuant to the relationship by and between" the Union and her, the Union had a duty of care to ensure her a safe workplace, which it had breached by allowing her to be assigned to work in a dangerous location. The Union removed the action to federal court on the grounds that its alleged duty arose solely from the collective bargaining agreement, and therefore that any breach of its duty was actionable solely under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947. The Union then moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely under the applicable federal statute of limitations. Respondent argued that the basic nature of her action was a state common-law "suit in tort," and prayed that the case be remanded to the state court. The District Court granted the Union's motion to dismiss, holding that the Union's alleged duty flowed from the collective bargaining agreement, and that respondent's claim thus was preempted by § 301, and was untimely under federal law. The Court of Appeals reversed.


1. Respondent's claim is not sufficiently independent of the collective bargaining agreement to withstand § 301's preemptive force. Pp. 481 U. S. 855-862.

(a) The interests in interpretive uniformity and predictability that require that labor contract disputes be resolved by reference to federal common law also require that the meaning given a contract phrase or term be subject to uniform federal interpretation, whether the question arises in the context of a suit for breach of contract or in a suit alleging liability in tort. Thus, an employee's state law tort action that necessarily rests on an interpretation of terms in the collective bargaining

Page 481 U. S. 852

agreement is preempted by § 301. Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck, 471 U. S. 202. Pp. 471 U. S. 855-859.

(b) Under Florida law, the employer, not the labor union, owes employees a duty to furnish a reasonably safe workplace. A union may assume a responsibility to employees by accepting a duty of care through a contractual arrangement, and, under Florida law, if a party breaches a contractual duty, the aggrieved party may bring either an action for breach of contract or a tort action for the injury suffered as a result of the contractual breach. However, the threshold inquiry for determining if a cause of action exists is an examination of the contract to ascertain what duties were accepted by each of the parties and the scope of those duties. Respondent's complaint alleges precisely this type of tortious breach of contract claim, and her allegations of negligence are significant only if the Union, under the collective bargaining agreement, assumed the duty of care that it allegedly breached. Thus, questions of contract interpretation underlie any finding of tort liability, and respondent is precluded from evading § 301's preemptive force by casting her claim as a state law tort action. Pp. 481 U. S. 859-862.

2. If respondent's suit is treated as a § 301 claim, it must be determined whether the claim is time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations under federal law. Because the Court of Appeals erroneously concluded that respondent's claim was not preempted, it is appropriate for that court to consider, in the first instance, whether the period of limitations adopted by the District Court is applicable to respondent's claim. Pp. 481 U. S. 863-865.

772 F.2d 788, vacated and remanded.

BLACKMUN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J.,and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 481 U. S. 865.

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