Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corporation

RESPONDENT:Universal Maritime Service Corporation
LOCATION:Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 97-889
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 525 US 70 (1998)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1998
DECIDED: Nov 16, 1998

Barbara D. Underwood – On behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioner
Charles A. Edwards – Argued the cause for the respondents
Ray P. McClain – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Ceasar Wright worked as a longshoreman. He belonged to the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO, a union that supplied workers to the South Carolina Stevedores Association (SCSA). In 1992, Wright sustained a worked-related; he sought compensation for permanent disability under federal law. In 1995, Wright returned to Longshoremen’s Association to be referred for work. When the stevedoring companies, to which he was referred, discovered that he had previously settled a claim for permanent disability, they informed the union they would not accept Wright for employment. Under the collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) between the Longshoremen’s Association and the SCSA, Wright was not qualified to perform longshore work if he was permanently disabled. Wright chose not to file a grievance under the CBA, but instead to file a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). He alleged the stevedoring companies and the SCSA had discriminated against him by refusing him work. The District Court dismissed the case because Wright had failed to pursue the grievance procedure — arbitration — provided by the CBA. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


May employees sue over alleged discrimination under the ADA when their union contract requires grievances to be handled through arbitration?

Media for Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corporation

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – October 07, 1998 in Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corporation

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – November 16, 1998 in Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corporation

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 97-889, Wright versus Universal Maritime Service Corporation will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This case is here on certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Petitioner Ceasar Wright was a longshoreman in Charleston, South Carolina and a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association AFL-CIO which has a collective bargaining agreement, the CBA, as we call it, with the South Carolina Stevedores Association.

The CBA contains a general Arbitration Clause which covers “matters under disputes”.

In 1992 Wright was injured at work and sought compensation for permanent disability.

Under the Longshore and Harbor Workers Compensation Act, Wright ultimately settled that claim.

In 1995, he returned to work and was referred to four Stevedoring Companies through the union’s hiring hall.

When the companies learned however that Wright had previously settled the claim for permanent disability they informed the union that they would no longer accept him for employment.

Instead of filing a grievance pursuant to the CBA Wright filed charges of employment discrimination with the EEOC and the South Carolina State Human Affairs Commission.

He alleged that the Stevedoring Companies refusal to hire him violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After receiving a right to sue letter Wright filed the present lawsuit.

The District Court dismissed the complaint without prejudice because Wright failed to use the CBA arbitration procedure, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today we reverse the Fourth Circuit.

This dispute implicates two lives of our case law, a case called Alexander versus Gardener Denver decided in 1974, held that an employee does not forfeit his right to judicial forum for a Title VII discrimination claim if he first pursues his grievance to arbitration under a CBA.

A case called Gilmer versus Interstate Johnson Lane Corp decided in 1991 held that a claim under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act could be subjected to compulsory arbitration pursuant to an Arbitration Agreement agreed to buy an individual in a securities registration form.

Although these cases are relevant to our disposition of the present dispute, we find it unnecessary to resolve the question whether after Gilmer a union may waive an employees’ rights to a federal judicial forum for antidiscrimination claims.

Because we conclude that in this case no such waiver has occurred.

The respondents rely upon the presumption of arbitrability we have found in Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act.

We conclude that this presumption does not extend beyond the reach of its principle rationale, which is that labor arbitrators are in a better position than courts to interpret and apply the terms of a CBA.

This case however ultimately concerns not the interpretation or application of a CBA but rather the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We hold that any union negotiated waiver of employee’s rights to a federal judicial forum for statutory antidiscrimination claims must be clear and unmistakable.

We do not find such a clear and unmistakable waiver in this CBA.

For that reason we vacate the judgment of the Fourth Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings.

Our opinion is unanimous.