United Food & Commercial Workers v. Brown Group, Inc.

PETITIONER: United Food & Commercial Workers
RESPONDENT: Brown Group, Inc.
LOCATION: Texas General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 95-340
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 517 US 544 (1996)
ARGUED: Feb 20, 1996
DECIDED: May 13, 1996

ADVOCATES:
Alan Jenkins - on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Petitioner
Laurence E. Gold - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Lan Jenkins - On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Thomas C. Walsh - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 751 filed suit alleging that Brown Group, Inc. began to lay off workers in connection with the closing of one of its plants, Brown Shoe Company, before giving the union the closing notice required by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (the WARN Act). The union sought backpay for each of its affected members. Under modern associational standing doctrine, an organization may sue to redress its members' injuries when: 1) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; 2) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization's purpose; and 3) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit. The District Court dismissed the compliant. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that "[e]ach union member who wishes to recover WARN Act damages from Brown Shoe must participate in the suit so that his or her right to damages can be determined and the quantum of damages can be calculated by the court on the basis of particularized proof." Therefore, the court concluded that the suit was barred because the union failed to meet the third part of the test for asserting associational standing.

Question

May a labor union sue on behalf of its members over alleged violations of the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act?

Media for United Food & Commercial Workers v. Brown Group, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 20, 1996 in United Food & Commercial Workers v. Brown Group, Inc.

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-340, United Food & Commercial Workers Union Local 751 v. The Brown Group doing business as Brown Shoe Company.

Mr. Gold.

Laurence E. Gold:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Last term, this Court in North Star Steel Company summarized the basic aspects of the WARN Act, which is the statute which generates this case as well.

We set out the pertinent portion of the Court's opinion on page 9 of our opening brief, the blue brief, and very simply stated as the Court noted WARN is a statute which puts a condition on employers on plant closings and mass layoffs.

The employer is supposed to notify, among others, each representative of the affected employees if the facility is one in which the employees have an exclusive representative.

An employer who violates the notice provision is liable for penalties by way of a civil action that may be brought in any district court, and as the court concluded by noting, the class of plaintiffs includes both aggrieved employees or their unions as representatives, who may collect back pay for each day of violation not to exceed 60 days.

In this case, the union brought a WARN act case concerning a plant closing, alleging that Brown Group had proceeded without providing the proper notice.

The Eighth Circuit held that the union did not have standing to bring and prosecute that lawsuit and to seek the statutory remedy.

We believe the standing holding of the Eighth Circuit is plainly wrong.

We begin from--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Gold, what is the actual injury to the union?

Laurence E. Gold:

--The--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

The failure to get the notice?

Laurence E. Gold:

--Right, the violation of its right to get the notice--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, how does giving a recovery to the employees redress that injury to the union?

Laurence E. Gold:

--The nature of the notice right is not one which inures to the union as an institution, as a person.

The point of the act, as the sponsors noted, and we quote this on page 10 of our reply brief, is that as the collective bargaining agent, the exclusive representative, whether it be an international union, a regional union, or a local union, has the responsibility and authority to address changes in terms and conditions of employment, the effects of a plant closing, and cooperative efforts at worker readjustment.

So the union gets the notice in order to facilitate employee readjustment, retraining, job location, to deal with the employer in ways which may even alleviate the entire problem, and as... what Congress saw is that if the employer does not provide the notice, the union is harmed by losing the opportunity to provide those representative services.

And what Congress determined was that where the notice isn't provided, and where employees do not get the opportunity to have this period of readjustment with assured income, the closest that was appropriate, because Congress particularly made the judgment that injunctive relief would not lie, that the closest that was appropriate was, in essence, a form of specific performance.

You will get 60 days with this assured money at some point, and have the opportunity, some opportunity for readjustment in that way.

So the union, by providing the substitute, is redressing the injury that it suffered by this invasion of its legal right.

Now, certainly we would not have balked, and I am certain that we lobbied for institutional direct relief as well, but the proposition that this is not relief that redresses the lost opportunities that are generated by the violation of the union's legal right seems to me to be without substance or reason.

This is a form of redressing this particular form of legal right.

William H. Rehnquist:

The damages sought are back pay?

Laurence E. Gold:

Correct.

They are in an amount of back pay.

They're not exactly back pay as we normally understand that term.

It's a formula.

Every day without notice generates a certain amount per employee, whether or not that employee actually found another job or... it's a formula.