U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Railway Labor Act Pre-Arbitration Conference Requirement


This month, the United States Supreme Court handed down Union Pacific v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 558 U.S. ___(Dec. 8, 2009). Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

The Railway Labor Act (RLA) as amended, provides for arbitration of “minor disputes” of railroad employees before a panels at the National Railroad Adjustment Board (NRAB or Board). These panels are composed of two representatives of labor and two of industry, with a neutral referee as tiebreaker. Before proceeding to arbitration, employees and carriers must exhaust all procedures (also known as “on-property” proceedings) stated in their Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Then, a pre-arbitration “conference” is required in which the parties must attempt to settle the dispute.

In the present case, Union Pacific Railroad Co. (the Carrier) charged five of its employees with disciplinary violations. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the “on-property” procedures, Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (the Union) filed for arbitration before the NRAB. However, the parties did not submit timely proof of pre-arbitration conferences and NRAB dismissed the petitions for want of jurisdiction. The panel reasoned that it could not consider de novo evidence. The district court affirmed the NRAB’s decision and the Seventh Circuit reversed.

The U.S. Supreme Court noted that Court of Appeals are divided on whether in addition to the statutory grounds for judicial review provided by the RLA, courts may review NRAB proceedings for due process violations. However, the Court clarified that the satisfaction of the pre-arbitration conference “does not condition the adjudicatory authority of the Board.”

The Court held that the Seventh Circuit erred in resolving the case under a constitutional, rather than a statutory issue. Accordingly, the Court affirmed that the panel did not lack jurisdiction over the employees’ claims.

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