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MEYER v. JOINT COUNCIL 53 (01/05/65)


decided: January 5, 1965.


Appeals from order of Court of Common Pleas No. 5 of Philadelphia County, June T., 1963, No. 2479, in case of Charles Meyer et al. v. Joint Council 53, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America et al.


Edward Davis, for appellants.

Richard H. Markowitz, with him Richard Kirschner, and Wilderman, Markowitz & Kirschner, for appellants.

Edward Greer, with him Folz, Bard, Kamsler, Goodis & Greenfield, for appellees.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Roberts. Mr. Justice Musmanno dissents. Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Cohen.

Author: Roberts

[ 416 Pa. Page 403]

Plaintiffs, six individuals, filed a complaint in trespass against seven individuals and five unincorporated labor organizations seeking damages for libel. The alleged defamation appeared in a printed tabloid called "Teamsters Extra"*fn1 which was specially issued during a campaign preceding a National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] representation election.*fn2

[ 416 Pa. Page 404]

The complaint alleged that defendants, with willful and malicious intent to injure plaintiffs, published articles, sketches, and pictures in the "Teamsters Extra" which contained malicious and defamatory material. Among the statements was one which proclaimed that the top officers, members of the executive board, and active leaders of Voice have been individually convicted of one or more of a list of crimes. On the list were such crimes as burglary, manslaughter, rape, sodomy, and corrupting the morals of a minor.*fn3

Defendants filed preliminary objections which challenged jurisdiction. These were dismissed by the court below. On this appeal attacking the lower court's ruling, defendants have raised the question of whether the jurisdiction of our state courts is preempted by provisions of the National Labor Relations Act. Certain of the defendants have raised an additional question concerning exhaustion of internal union remedies.


We consider, first, the claim of federal preemption. The landmark case involving preemption in the labor

[ 416 Pa. Page 405]

    field is San Diego Bldg. Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, 79 S. Ct. 773 (1959), which held that a state court lacked jurisdiction to award damages for conduct constituting a tortious unfair labor practice under state law. In that case, the tortious activity consisted of peaceful union picketing designed to compel employers to execute a contract which would provide that only union members, or workers who applied for union membership within 30 days, would remain in their employ.*fn4 Recognizing a congressional purpose, as expressed in relevant legislation, to foster the development of a uniform national labor policy through administrative regulation by the NLRB, the Supreme Court of the United States based its holding on the general principle that both state and federal courts must defer to the exclusive competence of the Board when the activity involved is arguably subject to Section 7*fn5 or Section 8*fn6 of the National Labor Relations Act, as amended. The Supreme Court further noted that previous cases permitting state courts to award damages for tortious activities marked by violence and imminent threats to public order were based on the

[ 416 Pa. Page 406]

    principle that "the compelling state interest, in the scheme of our federalism, in the maintenance of domestic peace is not overridden in the absence of clearly expressed congressional direction." Id. at 247, 79 S. Ct. at 781. The Court found no such interest to be involved in the Garmon case.

We assume, as defendants contend, that the activities of the defendants in the present case are arguably subject to Section 7*fn7 or 8*fn8 of the Act. But even assuming this, we still reach the conclusion that our state courts are not precluded from exercising jurisdiction over libel actions arising from labor activities.*fn9 Following the principles set forth in Garmon,

[ 416 Pa. Page 407]

    the question we must determine is whether there is a compelling state interest, especially in the maintenance of domestic peace, upon which state jurisdiction over a libel suit can be predicated.*fn10 We believe that such an interest does exist.

In determining that there is such an interest which permits the court below to exercise jurisdiction, we find persuasive the language used in Garmon and by the same author in Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 72 S. Ct. 725 (1952). In Garmon, the Court explained the important policies which permit state jurisdiction

[ 416 Pa. Page 408]

    even where the activities involved are arguably subject to NLRB jurisdiction: "[D]ue regard for the presuppositions of our embracing federal system, including the principle of diffusion of power not as a matter of doctrinaire localism but as a promoter of democracy, has required us not to find withdrawal from the States of power to regulate where the activity regulated was a merely peripheral concern of the Labor Management Relations Act. . . . Or where the regulated conduct touched interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility that, in the absence of compelling congressional direction, we could not infer that Congress had deprived the States of the power to act." Id. at 243, 79 S. Ct. at 779.

Writing for the majority in Beauharnais, Justice Frankfurter (the writer of Garmon) said in reference to an Illinois statute: "Moreover, the [Illinois] Supreme Court's characterization of the words prohibited by the statute as those 'liable to cause violence and disorder' paraphrases the traditional justification for punishing libels criminally, namely their 'tendency to cause breach of the peace.'" Id. at 254, 72 S. Ct. at 729.

Justice Frankfurter went on to reiterate that: "'There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words -- those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. "Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not

[ 416 Pa. Page 409]

    in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument."'" Id. at 255-57, 72 S. Ct. at 730-31.*fn11

The clear and historically concerned interest of the state in providing a peaceful forum to which individuals whose reputations have been damaged by false and injurious statements can bring their claims should not be frustrated in the absence of a clear expression of congressional intent.*fn12 Our review of legislative history

[ 416 Pa. Page 410]

    reveals no such express intent, nor can we find any such implicit necessity. We should especially protect the significant state interest where the "slight social value" of the utterances "as a step to truth" is so clearly out-weighed by countervailing, meaningful social interests.*fn13

Nor would the forum provided by the NLRB adequately protect the state interest involved since libelous utterances may frequently be regarded as immaterial or insignificant in relation to the labor issues involved, and, therefore, may not motivate the NLRB to set aside an election. A deep-seated state interest should not be withdrawn from state jurisdiction by virtue of such extremely peripheral labor activity.*fn14

[ 416 Pa. Page 411]

We have said that the activity involved in this case is peripheral to the labor dispute. In fact, in entertaining suits for libel, our courts deal with an interest completely different from that with which the NLRB deals. The NLRB is not interested in protecting reputation, or in deterring violence. Its concern is with insuring that an employee's right of free choice is not interfered with by coercion, falsehood or emotion.*fn15 On the other hand, the state jurisdiction is not directed at regulation of labor relations as such. The state concern is with injury to reputation and the discouragement of violent reprisals.*fn16 The fact that a labor dispute is involved in this case is really a fortuitous circumstance.*fn17 In our view, these factors are quite significant.*fn18

[ 416 Pa. Page 412]

The right of an individual to be protected against injury inflicted by false and damaging statements is so fundamentally within the traditional province of state concern and responsibility that extended emphasis and discussion appear unnecessary. Surely, state administration of justice should not be denied on the basis of an inference or an assumption. Less than convincing congressional direction is insufficient to deprive the state of its important jurisdiction to offer a peaceful forum for redress.

We are unable to find any congressional action or intention, express or implied, which limits the power of the state to make effective its long expressed public policy of according litigants a peaceful forum for protection against libel. Especially is this true where, as here, the allegation is made that the libel was deliberate, malicious and made with actual intent to harm.

It is also intriguing to note the consequences of the rule for which the defendants contend. Since the NLRB can offer no satisfactory redress to the individual for the harm caused in a labor controversy, participants in a labor dispute have, in effect, personal immunity from action for libel. Our federal constitution

[ 416 Pa. Page 413]

    insures freedom of speech, yet it has always been held that freedom of speech is circumscribed by limits. Libel has traditionally been one of these limits. The furthest immunity from suits or prosecution for libel thus far granted is in regard to criticism made of governmental, public officials. See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710 (1964); Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 85 S. Ct. 209 (1964). And even this rule does not apply where the defamation is made with actual malice. Ibid. Since actual malice is alleged in the instant case, the holding which defendants seek would put them beyond even the pale of the Times ruling. We are not willing to grant to participants in labor disputes such absolute privileges on the basis of mere implication without any clear congressional indication -- privileges which far outdistance a constitutional guarantee so jealously guarded and extended to its permissible social limit.

We recognize, of course, the guiding principle behind the doctrine of federal preemption: that where state and federal remedies may conflict and cause friction, the state jurisdiction must yield in the absence of a compelling state interest. A delicate balance exists between insuring effectuation of the federal policy embodied in congressional labor law and protecting permitted vital state interests. This is, of course, true where free speech in a labor dispute is involved. There is always some danger that criticism may be stifled if the balance is not precisely drawn, yet this is always true in placing defamation limitations on free speech. Abuses can be protected by the exercise of judicial authority. Beauharnais v. Illinois, supra, at 263-64, 72 S. Ct. at 734; Salzhandler v. Caputo, 316 F. 2d 445, 450 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 375 U.S. 946, 84 S. Ct. 344 (1963).

Believing that a valid state interest which does not transgress federal policy exists in this defamation action,

[ 416 Pa. Page 414]

    we conclude that state jurisdiction has not been withdrawn.


The trial court correctly dismissed defendants' preliminary objection which attacked plaintiffs' alleged failure to exhaust internal union remedies before seeking judicial relief. The court below held that plaintiffs' action for defamation is subject to, and controllable by, the courts rather than the constitution or by-laws of the union. Falsetti v. U. No. 2026, U.M.W. A., 400 Pa. 145, 161 A.2d 882 (1960), recognized that exceptions exist with respect to the rule regarding exhaustion of remedies and also recognized a relationship between that rule and the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.*fn19

In Salzhandler v. Caputo, 316 F. 2d 445 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 375 U.S. 946, 84 S. Ct. 344 (1963), the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 which protects freedom of expression for union members*fn20 was construed to prohibit union discipline with respect to a member who allegedly had made libelous statements about a union officer.*fn21 The union argued in support of its disciplinary sanctions, that

[ 416 Pa. Page 415]

"just as constitutionally protected speech does not include libelous utterances, Beauharnais v. Illinois, . . . [supra], the speech protected by the statute likewise does not include libel and slander." 316 F. 2d at 449. The court of appeals, however, distinguished Beauharnais, stating that the Supreme Court of the United States in that case had sustained the punishment of libel by courts and not by unions,*fn22 and held that although "libelous statements may be made the basis of civil suit between those concerned, the union may not subject a member to any disciplinary action on a finding by its governing board that such statements are libelous."*fn23 316 F. 2d at 451. Among the exceptions noted in Falsetti is that a person will not be required to take intra-association appeals which cannot, in fact,

[ 416 Pa. Page 416]

    yield remedies.*fn24 This exception is clearly applicable in the present case. This record is entirely free from even the slightest suggestion that any remedy -- theoretical, token, illusory or otherwise -- is in any manner available or provided by any internal union procedure.

Order affirmed.


Order affirmed.

Dissenting Opinion by Mr. Justice Cohen:

In view of the lack of authority for the proposition that the state's interest in defamation is as great as the state's interest in physical violence, I prefer to follow the well reasoned federal and state authorities to the effect that state-based actions for defamation arising out of a labor dispute are precluded, because regulation of the conduct in question is subject to the exclusive primary jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board over unfair labor practices and representation elections. Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers, 337 F. 2d 68 (6th Cir. 1964); Blum v. Int'l Ass'n of Machinists, 42 N.J. 389, 201 A.2d 46 (1964); Hill v. Moe, 367 P. 2d 739 (S. Ct. Alaska 1961), cert. den., 370 U.S. 916 (1962); Warehouse & Produce Workers Local 559, IBT v. United States Gypsum Co., 50 C.C.H. Lab. Cas. para. 19,196 (Superior Ct. Wash. 1963); Schnell Tool & Die Corp. v. United Steelworkers, 200 N.E. 2d 727 (Ohio C.P. 1964). These cases are clearly within the spirit of the recent United States Supreme Court pronouncements on preemption of state tort actions arising out of labor disputes. See Iron Workers Union v. Perko, 373 U.S. 701 (1963) and Local 100, United Association of Journeymen v. Borden, 373 U.S. 690 (1963).

[ 416 Pa. Page 417]

While the reputation and character of employees and employers may not be the primary concern of the NLRB in defining the area of permissible speech in labor disputes, it is patent that the development of fifty state laws of defamation cannot adequately deal with the needs of free flow of communication in such disputes. The Commonwealth's interest in defamation in the course of labor disputes is not great enough to warrant submersion of the vital need for uniformity of federal regulation of labor relations. This is not merely a case of the Commonwealth's interest colliding with that of the federal government, for it is the Commonwealth, like all states, that reaps the benefit of sound labor relations.

Accordingly, I dissent.

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