482 U. S. 656
June 19, 1987
Several black workers in a steel factory felt repeatedly discriminated against, and so they sued under the Civil Rights Act, and Section 1981. They sued not only the company, but also their union, on the theory that the union’s failure to stand up and fight for their rights was also discrimination. A dispute arose as to whether the statute of limitations for the suit was six years as provided by a Pennsylvania law, or the two years allowed for 1983 suits.
The Court ruled 6-3 that the Section 1983 time limit of two years should be followed. White said that a uniform national time limit was needed, and that 1981 violations were more analogous to personal injuries than economic and contractual harms (which would merit a far longer statute of limitations). White thought this limitation could be applied retroactively to the plaintiffs, since there was no other limit with enough judicial recognition to merit reliance. A completely different alignment of Justices then ruled 6-3 that the union was guilty of discriminating against the black workers. The union did nothing affirmatively, but the very act of refusing to fight for the black employees in case after case after case ultimately added up to sufficient discrimination for liability under the laws. Rehnquist and Stevens assented to White’s opinion in full.
Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, dissented from the statute of limitations holding. He reviewed the purpose, background, and legislative history of Section 1981 at length, and concluded that protection against economic injuries was at its heart. Brennan further observed that the kind of activity which the section banned had a tendency to take place over long periods of time, in marked contrast to usually discrete violations of Section 1983. All three Justices agreed wholeheartedly with the holding that the union had discriminated.
Powell, joined by O’Connor and Scalia, had precisely the opposite opinion. He agreed with the statute of limitations holding, but dissented from the discrimination holding. After extensively reviewing the evidence, he concluded that the union had acceptable neutral reasons for not pursuing most of the grievances alleged by the black employees. Powell felt that actual discriminatory intent, and not disparate treatment alone, was required to make a finding of liability. He wrapped up by arguing that imposing a positive duty on unions to address racial grievances would encourage frivolous litigation, and was thus unwise as a policy matter. In a brief concurrence, O’Connor said that she was troubled by the two year limitation, and the retroactivity analysis, but ultimately accepted the Court’s holding on those issues anyway.
What bloc was most correct legally? After reading all the opinions, I have to go with the one combination that no Justice took: Brennan was right about the statute of limitations, but Powell was right about the finding of discrimination. In terms of voting records, this case is fascinating because it represents a rare instance of Brennan and Marshall actually voting against a union. Most disturbing of all though, this case is yet another instance of a union not caring about employee welfare as much as it claims to (see Hechler for an even more cynical example).