RESPONDENT: Department of Interior
LOCATION: North Carolina General Assembly
DOCKET NO.: 97-1184
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
CITATION: 526 US 86 (1999)
ARGUED: Nov 09, 1998
DECIDED: Mar 03, 1999
David M. Smith - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Gregory O'Duden - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Irving L. Gornstein - Department of Justice, on behalf of the respondents
Facts of the case
The National Federation of Federal Employees, a federal employees' union, proposed to include a provision obligating the Interior Department to negotiate midterm matters not in the original contract between the union and the Agency. The Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute, that created the Federal Labor Relations Authority, requires federal agencies and their employees' unions to negotiate in good faith to arrive at a collective bargaining agreement. Initially, the Authority held that the good-faith bargaining clause did not extend to union-initiated proposals during the term of the basic contract. The Court of Appeals did not agree and, in turn, the Authority reversed its decision. The Interior Department refused the proposal on the ground that union-initiated midterm bargaining is inconsistent with the Statute. The Authority then ordered the Agency to comply with the bargaining.
Can federal agencies be required to bargain with federal employees' unions over issues that arise during the duration of a contract?
Media for National Federation of Federal Employees , Local 1309 v. Department of InteriorAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 1998 in National Federation of Federal Employees , Local 1309 v. Department of Interior
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 03, 1999 in National Federation of Federal Employees , Local 1309 v. Department of Interior
William H. Rehnquist:
The opinion of the Court in No. 97-1184, National Federation of Federal Employees versus Department of the Interior and a companion case will announced by Justice Breyer.
Stephen G. Breyer:
The labor relations between federal agency and federal employee union are governed and administered by a special statute called the Federal Service Labor Management Relations Statute and a special agency that is called the Federal Labor Relations Authority, it is a little bit like the private sectors National Labor Relations Act in the NLRB.
Now, this case focuses upon a statutory requirement in that statute that I just mentioned, which says that federal agencies and unions "they must meet and negotiate in good faith for the purposes of arriving at a collective bargaining agreement".
Now everybody agree, that this language requires the agency and the union to negotiate over basic collective bargaining contracts, ordinary contacts, for example, begin at a certain time that go on for few years and then end.
But does it also require the agency to bargain with the union midterm that is during say that, three years so period that the regular contract is in effect?
They might want to do that to negotiate about matters that the regular contract did not cover.
Also, does that language require the agency to bargain at the end of the normal contract's term about whether or not there will be midterm bargaining?
Several years ago the District of Columbia Circuit held that the statute did require midterm bargaining but later the Fourth Circuit held the opposite.
It said that not even the authority that agency they couldn't even require a midterm bargaining, because the statute simply could not be read to require or to permit the authority to require midterm bargaining or bargaining about midterm bargaining.
This case comes to us out of the Fourth Circuit.
We review its interpretation of the law and we disagree with that interpretation.
We hold that the statute can be read to impose a requirement to bargain midterm or to bargain about bargaining midterm.
But it does not have to be read that way; rather it is up to the authority to decide.
The statute's language is ambiguous, it simply talks about "collective bargaining" without mentioning midterm or endterm bargaining and we could find no literal language or history or basic purpose or other interpretive tool that, in our view, conclusively resolve the ambiguity one way or the other.
That being so, we conclude that Congress intended the relevant administrative agency, namely the Federal Labor Relations Authority; the Congress intended that agency to decide whether, when, how, or what sort of midterm bargaining should take place.
That authority, not a court, is the appropriate party, to weigh and to consider the various policy oriented arguments that the parties have advanced in this Court.
Consequently, we send this case back to the authority, so that it may exercise its power to decide about midterm bargaining without the constraint imposed by previous lower court opinion holding that the statute itself conclusively resolve the question either one way or the other.
Justice O'Connor has filed a dissenting opinion which the Chief Justice has joined, in which Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have joined in part.