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Chauffeurs, Teamsters and Helpers Local 391 v. Terry

    Brief Fact Summary. The Respondents, various unionized workers (Respondents), brought action against the Petitioners, Chauffeurs, Teamster and Helpers Local 391 (Petitioners), their union for violation of the duty of fair representation. Respondents sought compensatory damages in the form of back pay and loss of benefits. Respondents requested and were granted a jury trial by the District and Appellate Courts. The Union appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Claims based on the duty of fair representation are legal in nature.

    Facts. The McLean Trucking Company and the Petitioners were parties to a collective bargaining agreement that governed the conditions of employment at McLean’s terminals. The 27 Respondents were unionized workers employed as truck drivers at McLean. Respondents claimed a violation in their seniority rights and filed a grievance with the Union, which in turn, declined to refer the issues to a grievance committee because prior proceedings had determined these issues. The Respondents filed suit in the District Court against the Union for violation of the duty of fair representation and sought compensatory damages for lost wages and health benefits. They requested a jury trial and were granted one by the District Court whose decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

    Issue. Whether an employee who seeks relief in the form of back pay for a union’s alleged breach of duty of fair representation has a right to trial by jury.

    Held. The nature of Respondents’ duty of fair representation action and the remedy they sought was a legal action. The money damages Respondents sought are of a type traditionally awarded by courts of law. Thus, the Seventh Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution), entitled Respondents to a jury trial. Court of Appeals decision affirmed.

    Dissent. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy (J. Kennedy), Sandra Day O’Connor (J. O’Connor) and Antonin Scalia (J. Scalia) asserted that the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution required the Court to determine whether the duty of fair representation action was more similar to cases that were tried in courts of law or in courts of equity. Once the court decided that it was more similar to an equity action (trustee/trust beneficiary), the inquiry should have ended there.
    Concurrence. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan (J. Brennan) concurred and said he would rather the test concentrate on the basis of the relief sought rather than looking to see whether historically the action is at law or in equity.
    Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) concurred that the majority made the case difficult by exaggerating the importance of finding a precise common law analogy to the duty of fair representation, which were for the most part in his opinion, ordinary civil actions involving contract and malpractice disputes. He therefore, found no ground for excluding these types of actions from the right to a jury.


    Discussion. The Court agreed with the Union’s argument that its duty to the Respondents was analogous to the fiduciary duty that a trustee has to a trust beneficiary


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