Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive Engineers

PETITIONER:Union Pacific Railroad Company
RESPONDENT:Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen General Committee of Adjustment, Central Region
LOCATION:National Railroad Adjustment Board

DOCKET NO.: 08-604
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 558 US 67 (2009)
GRANTED: Feb 23, 2009
ARGUED: Oct 07, 2009
DECIDED: Dec 08, 2009

J. Scott Ballenger – argued the cause for the petitioner
Thomas H. Geoghegan – on behalf of the respondent

Facts of the case

The plaintiffs, employees of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR), filed claims through their union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), contesting their discharge or discipline imposed by the UPR. The National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB) dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction reasoning that the BLET failed to submit conclusive evidence that the aggrieved parties had held a conference with the UPR to attempt to resolve the disputes – a prerequisite to arbitration – though conferences were in fact held. The plaintiffs appealed to a federal district where the dismissal was affirmed.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the NRAB denied the plaintiffs due process by requiring evidence of conferencing on the record as a prerequisite to arbitration. The court reasoned that this requirement was not clearly established in the statutes, regulations, or collective bargaining agreement and therefore the NRAB had created a new requirement, which it imposed retroactively.


1) Did the Seventh Circuit err in setting aside a final arbitration award for an alleged due process violation?

2) Are prearbitration settlement conferences a prerequisite for NRAB jurisdiction over a dispute?

Media for Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive Engineers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 07, 2009 in Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive Engineers

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – December 08, 2009 in Union Pacific R. Co. v. Locomotive Engineers

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has her opinion this morning in case 08-604, Union Pacific Railroad versus the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case concerns the Railway Labors Act’s provisions for resolution of disputes between Railroads employees and their employers.

The act calls for initial recourse to the grievance procedure set out in the collective bargaining contract between the employee’s union and the the carrier.

The last step in the internal process is a conference, a final effort by the union and the carrier to reach a settlement agreeable to both sides.

Failing settlement, either party made prompt arbitration by notifying the National Railroad Adjustment Board, a 34-member board composed of industry and labor representatives in equal numbers.

For arbitration the board sits in panels that include two members representing labor, two representing industry and a neutral referee to break ties.

At issue here are the grievances of five employees of the Union Pacific Railroad.

When the collective bargaining procedure achieved no solution the union initiated board arbitration.

A board panel convened to hear the cases.

Just before the hearing was to start, one of the two industry representatives on the panel raised an objection the carrier itself had not yet urged.

The record submitted by the union, the objecting panel member observed, contained no proof of conferencing.

The Union maintained that conferences had in fact occurred in all five cases and it offered supporting documents, but the panel held that the proof came too late.

Absent inclusion of proof of conferencing in the Union’s initial submission the panel ruled, the cases had to be dismissed for want of board authority to assume jurisdiction over the employees’ claims.

The union sought judicial review and prevailed in the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

That court explained in plain English that the controversy reduced to a single question is written documentation that union and carrier representatives have had conferred a necessary prerequisite to board arbitration.

The Seventh Circuit answered no, but it placed its decision on the extra statutory ground that the panel’s dismissals denied the grievened employees due process.

We agree with the Court of Appeals that the dismissal orders were not tenably grounded, but to reach that decision there was no cause to resort to due process, a ground for upsetting board orders not stated in the Railway Labor Act.

The act does provide for vacating board orders not confined to matters within the scope of the panel’s jurisdiction.

That we can conclude is just what the panel did here.

It refused to adjudicate the five cases on the mistaken view that it lacked jurisdiction to hear them.

Proof of conferencing, our opinion explains, is a claim processing rule, essentially a pleading instruction.

It is not a jurisdictional requirement, because the the panel plainly had authority to assume jurisdiction over the employees’ claims, we affirm the judgment of the Seventh Circuit setting aside the panel’s orders, but we do so under the express terms of the Railway Labor Act without reaching the question whether the final decisions maybe set aside for want of due process.

The opinion which aims to reduce confusion over matters properly typed jurisdictional is unanimous.