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National Labor Relations Board v. M. Koppel Co.

decided: June 12, 1969.


Hastie, Chief Judge, and Kalodner and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen


The National Labor Relations Board petitions for enforcement of its August 2, 1967, order*fn1 directing, inter alia, the respondent, M. Koppel Company (the Company) to bargain upon request with the National Organization of Industrial Trade Unions (the Union). See 29 U.S.C. § 160(e). For reasons which hereinafter appear, we deny the petition without prejudice and remand the case to the Board for further proceedings.

The Company processes and sells textile remnants at a plant in Newark and a store in Westwood, New Jersey. In 1966, Koppel was the President and Strauss, his nephew, was the Vice-President and Manager. At that time, approximately ten employees worked at the plant and two at the store.

Glassman, an organizer for the Union, gave several Union authorization cards to Thompson, an employee of the Company, on August 18.*fn2 Thompson distributed the cards to other employees and, within four days, seven of them, including himself, had signed and returned cards to Glassman. Thereafter, under date of August 23, the Union sent a letter to the Company, stating that "a majority of your employees" had authorized it to represent them and requesting "an early conference . . . for the purpose of discussing formal recognition of the Union and terms of a collective bargaining agreement". Without waiting for a reply, the Union filed the next day, August 24, a petition with the regional director of the Board, seeking certification as representative of the employees for collective bargaining purposes.*fn3

Also on August 24, the letter arrived at the Company plant. However, Koppel and his wife were in Europe, having left about two weeks before on an extended vacation. Strauss responded immediately that "our Mr. Koppel, who is the head of our organization, is presently out of town, and shall not return until late September, at which time your communication will be brought to his attention". On August 25, Strauss received a copy of the representation petition. That same day, he went to the plant's sorting room and questioned the five employees he found there about the Union. Ascertaining that several of them had signed authorization cards, Strauss apparently communicated with his uncle in Europe. Thereafter, a letter arrived from the Koppels, dated August 29 and addressed to all the employees.*fn4 It was read aloud and posted on a bulletin board at the plant. On September 8, Strauss granted incremental wage increases to the four girls who worked in the sorting room.

Meanwhile, the Company was participating in the various stages of the representation proceeding. Prehearing conferences, with representatives of the Company and the Union present, were held on August 29 and September 13. Although the Koppels returned from Europe on September 11, Glassman never demanded of Koppel that he bargain with the Union. Instead, a representation hearing was conducted on September 14 and on October 6 the regional director ordered an election.

However, the Union then withdrew its representation petition and, on October 13, filed unfair labor practice charges against the Company. A Complaint was duly issued by the General Counsel and a hearing conducted before a trial examiner. His decision held that Strauss' interrogation of the girls, the Koppels' letter, and the wage increases " interfered with, restrained, and coerced [the] . . . employees" within the meaning of § 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). Also, upon a finding that the Union had, by its August 23 letter, requested bargaining in an appropriate unit, he held that the Company had refused to bargain within the meaning of § 8(a)(5) of the Act. A bargaining order was recommended.*fn5 The Board affirmed without substantial modification and now petitions us to enforce its order.

We hold that the Company was denied procedural due process of law in the proceedings before the trial examiner and that the possibility of resulting prejudice requires a remand to the Board for the taking of additional testimony and consideration of an appropriate order in the light of the supplemented record.

Because the Union had withdrawn its representation petition and substituted the unfair labor practice charges, the trial examiner apparently regarded the representation proceedings as irrelevant to the issues before him. This attitude manifested itself in the exclusion from evidence of both the petition and the regional director's direction of election "for all purposes",*fn6 as well as in the refusal to allow counsel for the Company to examine Strauss concerning the relationship between the representation proceedings and certain of his actions alleged to be unfair labor practices.

Strauss received the Union's representation petition within a day after its letter had arrived. He was "completely surprised" such a petition had been filed, he testified, since Glassman had orally assured him the Union would await Koppel's return before taking any further action. According to Strauss, he questioned the sorting room girls in an effort to determine which employees the Union was claiming for a bargaining unit,*fn7 and whether it in fact had the "majority" referred to in the letter. Counsel for the Company, however, was not permitted to fully examine Strauss about his doubts as to which employees were being referred to in the petition, insofar as such doubts precipitated his questioning of the girls. We think this was unfairly restrictive, in view of the fact that the trial examiner found the questioning to have taken place before receipt of the petition*fn8 and concluded that Strauss' actual purpose was to "frighten [the girls] . . . into withdrawing . . . from the Union". The excluded testimony was relevant, not only to a determination of the correct sequence of these events but also to the causal relationship between them.*fn9

Also, counsel for the Company was not allowed to question Strauss about his understanding of the Union's August 23 letter in the context of the representation petition. On the record before us, this was error. An employer is under no duty to accede to an ambiguous request to bargain. National Can Corporation v. NLRB, 374 F.2d 796 (7th Cir. 1967). The trial examiner stated during the hearing that "the letter will have to speak for itself" and held in his decision, without discussion, that it "contain[ed] a plain request for recognition and collective bargaining". However, the letter was clearly incapable of speaking for itself. The contemporaneous filing of a representation petition was relevant to the important issue of whether the letter constituted a legally sufficient request for bargaining in an appropriate unit, such as could be the basis of a refusal to bargain. See National Can Corporation v. NLRB, supra, at 800-802; Flomatic Corporation, 147 NLRB 1304 (1964); Longview Furniture Company, 100 NLRB 301 (1952).*fn10

The filing of the petition, however, was not the only surrounding circumstance which the trial examiner failed to take into consideration in determining whether there had been a § 8(a)(5) refusal to bargain. Strauss testified that on two occasions prior to receiving the Union's letter of August 23, Glassman had orally assured him that he would wait and discuss the Union with Koppel when he returned. Although this testimony was uncontradicted, the examiner rejected it, finding it "impossible to believe" that any assurances had been given by Glassman.*fn11

Such a determination of credibility would ordinarily be entitled to our respect. See Universal Camera Corp. v. National Labor Relations Bd., 340 U.S. 474, 95 L. Ed. 456, 71 S. Ct. 456 (1951); Valley Forge Flag Company v. NLRB, 364 F.2d 310 (3rd Cir. 1966). However, our respect is not justified where, as here, the examiner himself has contributed to a witness' lack of credibility by improperly restricting his testimony.Counsel for the Company was not permitted to examine Strauss regarding two additional instances of assurances received from Glassman. According to the offers of proof, Strauss would have testified that, after he received the representation petition, Glassman twice told him that the letter and petition were formalities and that he was continuing to await Koppel's return, at which time an election could be held. The disallowance of this testimony was error. See National Can Corporation v. NLRB, supra ; Flomatic Corporation, supra ; Longview Furniture Company, supra. Corroborating testimony on this point was also excluded, which magnified the error since Strauss was the Company's only witness.*fn12 Compare Consolidated Edison ...

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