Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry

Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry
Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued December 6, 1989
Decided March 20, 1990
Full case name Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry, et al.
Citations 494 U.S. 558 (more)
110 S. Ct. 1339; 108 L. Ed. 2d 519; 1990 U.S. LEXIS 1530; 58 U.S.L.W. 4345; 114 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P11,930; 133 L.R.R.M. 2793
Prior history On certiorari from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
An action by an employee for a breach of a labor union's duty of fair representation entitles him to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Marshall (parts I, II, III-B, IV), joined by Rehnquist, Brennan, White, Blackmun, Stevens
Concurrence Marshall (part III-A), joined by Rehnquist, White, Blackmun
Concurrence Brennan
Concurrence Stevens
Dissent Kennedy, joined by O'Connor, Scalia
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. VII; 29 U.S.C. § 185

Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391 v. Terry, 494 U.S. 558 (1990),[1] was a case in which the United States Supreme Court held that an action by an employee for a breach of a labor union's duty of fair representation entitled him to a jury trial under the Seventh Amendment.



McLean Trucking Corporation and the defendant/petitioner union, Chauffeurs, Teamsters, and Helpers Local No. 391, were parties to a collective bargaining agreement which governed employment at McLean. The plaintiffs/respondents in this matter were Union members employed as truck drivers by McLean. In 1982, McLean began to shut down some of its terminals and reorganizing others. The company transferred plaintiffs to its terminal in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and granted them special seniority rights over inactive employees at that terminal who had been temporarily laid off.

After working at Winston-Salem for six weeks, the plaintiffs were alternately laid off and recalled several times. Some of the laid off truckers were stripped of their special seniority rights. The plaintiffs filed a grievance with the union, alleging that McLean had breached the collective bargaining agreement by giving inactive employees preference over them. The grievance committee ordered McLean to recall the plaintiffs and lay off the inactive drivers who had been recalled, and to recognize plaintiffs’ special seniority rights until the inactive employees were recalled properly. McLean obeyed the order of the grievance committee at first, but then recalled the inactive employees, causing them to gain seniority status over the plaintiffs. In the next round of layoffs, this meant that the plaintiffs were laid off first. Plaintiffs then filed another grievance with the union, alleging that McLean’s actions were intended to circumvent the grievance committee’s initial order. But the grievance committee held that McLean had acted legitimately. This pattern of temporary layoffs and recalls continued, prompting plaintiffs to file another grievance, but the Union did not refer the third grievance to a grievance committee, instead ruling that the relevant issues had already been decided.

In July 1983, plaintiffs brought suit against both the Union and McLean in the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, alleging that McLean had violated the collective bargaining agreement in violation of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, and alleging that the Union had breached its duty of fair representation. Plaintiffs requested a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to restore their seniority and cease their illegal activity. They further requested compensatory damages for lost wages and health benefits. McLean filed for bankruptcy in 1986, and all the claims against it were voluntarily dismissed.

Plaintiffs had requested a jury trial in their pleadings, but the Union moved to strike the demand for a jury trial, on the grounds that the no right to a jury trial exists in a duty of fair representation suit. The District Court denied the defendant’s motion to strike, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, holding that the Seventh Amendment entitled the plaintiffs to a jury trial on their claims for monetary damages.


Majority opinion

Justice Marshall wrote for the majority. He began his opinion by explaining that the right to a jury trial provided by the Seventh Amendment encompasses more than the common law forms of action recognized in 1791 (when the Bill of Rights was ratified), but rather any lawsuit in which parties’ legal rights were to be determined, as opposed to suits which only involve equitable rights and remedies. He proposed a two-part test, first comparing the statutory action created by Congress to the 18th century actions brought in the courts of England prior to the merger of the courts of law and equity; then, examining the remedy sought by the plaintiff to determine whether it was legal or equitable in nature.

Since actions to enforce collective bargaining agreements were unknown in 18th-century England (such agreements were unlawful at the time), the union argued that the action brought by the plaintiffs was, in essence, an attempt to vacate an arbitration award, which historically was considered an action in equity. Marshall rejected this argument because there had been no arbitration with regards to the union’s duty of fair representation. The union further argued that the suit was comparable to an action for breach of fiduciary duty (e.g. a suit concerning a trust), which was also considered an equitable action. The plaintiffs countered by comparing their suit to an action against an attorney for malpractice, which was an action at law.

Marshall conceded that the analogy to a trust action was more convincing, but reasoned that the right to a jury trial depended more on the nature of the issues to be tried. Although there was a fiduciary duty issue between the plaintiffs and the union, there was also an underlying breach of contract—that of the collective bargaining agreement between McLean and the plaintiffs.

Since the first part of the analysis failed to produce a dispositive result, Marshall then turned to the type of relief the plaintiffs sought. The only remaining remedy the plaintiffs sought against the union was compensatory damages, which are the traditional legal remedy. While restitutionary remedies such as back pay and benefits may be characterized as equitable when sought from an employer, the damages here were sought from the Union. Thus, Marshall held that the plaintiffs were requesting a legal remedy, and therefore, on the balance of the issues, were entitled to have their case heard by a jury.

Brennan’s concurrence

Justice Brennan concurred, but desired to simplify the test for determining a plaintiff’s Seventh Amendment rights. Specifically, he felt that it was unnecessary to examine the nature of the action itself, but rather to simply examine the type of relief requested by the plaintiff. If the plaintiff requested a legal remedy (such as monetary damages), Brennan would simply assume that the right to a jury trial existed, unless Congress had assigned the particular action to a non-Article III tribunal, and a jury trial would frustrate the intent of Congress.

Brennan went on to criticize the Court’s historical analysis of traditional equitable and legal causes of action. Many of the statutory rights created by Congress are not analogous to anything which existed in the courts of 18th-century England, and judges lack the historical training to analyze such matters consistently. Different justices and historians have come to different conclusions as to what is analogous to a “legal” or “equitable” action. He concluded that the right to a jury trial was too important for the Court to allow for such an uncertainty.

Stevens’ concurrence

Justice Stevens concurred separately, on similar grounds as Justice Brennan did. He felt that the Court’s attempt to find an 18th-century common law analogue to the collective-bargaining and fair representation actions in this case was a misguided historical judgment, and that the type of relief sought by the plaintiff was the relevant inquiry. He explained that it was perfectly rational to have members of the community—i.e. a jury of one’s peers—hear such a case.


Justice Kennedy, with whom Justices O'Connor and Scalia joined, dissented, arguing that the majority’s analogy to an equitable trust action should have been dispositive in this case. He further argued that the relationship between the union and its workers was more similar to the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary than an attorney and his client, because a union had a duty of fair representation to all of its workers and did not normally be compelled to act as an agent by one beneficiary. He also stated that the relief sought by the plaintiffs was equitable in nature, because it sought to make the plaintiffs whole, and that the majority unnecessarily separated out the legal and equitable issues in this case.

Justice Kennedy defended the historical comparison of the cause of action to the “suits at common law” available in 1791. He felt that to expand the right beyond what was available to plaintiffs at the time of the ratification of the Bill of Rights was nothing more than rewriting the Constitution, stating “[w]e cannot preserve a right existing in 1791 unless we look to history to identify it”. 494 U.S. at 593.

See also

External links

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