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SEARS v. SAN DIEGO COUNTY DISTRICT COUNCIL CARPENTERS

decided: May 15, 1978.

SEARS, ROEBUCK & CO
v.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY DISTRICT COUNCIL OF CARPENTERS



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and White, Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., post, p. 208, and Powell, J., post, p. 212, filed concurring opinions. Brennan, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Stewart and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 214.

Author: Stevens

[ 436 U.S. Page 182]

 MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question in this case is whether the National Labor Relations Act, as amended,*fn1 deprives a state court of the power to entertain an action by an employer to enforce state trespass laws against picketing which is arguably -- but not definitely -- prohibited or protected by federal law.

I

On October 24, 1973, two business representatives of respondent Union visited the department store operated by petitioner (Sears) in Chula Vista, Cal., and determined that certain carpentry work was being performed by men who had not been dispatched from the Union hiring hall. Later that day, the Union agents met with the store manager and requested that Sears either arrange to have the work performed by a contractor who employed dispatched carpenters or agree in writing to abide by the terms of the Union's master labor agreement with respect to the dispatch and use of carpenters. The Sears manager stated that he would consider the request, but he never accepted or rejected it.

Two days later the Union established picket lines on Sears' property. The store is located in the center of a large rectangular lot. The building is surrounded by walkways and a large parking area. A concrete wall at one end separates the lot from residential property; the other three sides adjoin public sidewalks which are adjacent to the public streets. The pickets patrolled either on the privately owned walkways next to the building or in the parking area a few feet away. They carried signs indicating that they were sanctioned by the "Carpenters Trade Union." The picketing was peaceful and orderly.

Sears' security manager demanded that the Union remove

[ 436 U.S. Page 183]

     the pickets from Sears' property. The Union refused, stating that the pickets would not leave unless forced to do so by legal action. On October 29, Sears filed a verified complaint in the Superior Court of California seeking an injunction against the continuing trespass; the court entered a temporary restraining order enjoining the Union from picketing on Sears' property. The Union promptly removed the pickets to the public sidewalks.*fn2 On November 21, 1973, after hearing argument on the question whether the Union's picketing on Sears' property was protected by state or federal law, the court entered a preliminary injunction.*fn3 The California Court of Appeal affirmed. While acknowledging the pre-emption guidelines set forth in San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236,*fn4 the court held that the Union's continuing trespass fell within the longstanding exception for conduct which touched interests so deeply rooted in local feeling and responsibility that pre-emption could not be inferred in the absence of clear evidence of congressional intent.*fn5

[ 436 U.S. Page 184]

     The Supreme Court of California reversed. 17 Cal. 3d 893, 553 P. 2d 603. It concluded that the picketing was arguably protected by § 7 of the Act, 29 U. S. C. § 157, because it was intended to secure work for Union members and to publicize Sears' undercutting of the prevailing area standards for the employment of carpenters. The court reasoned that the trespassory character of the picketing did not disqualify it from arguable protection, but was merely a factor which the National Labor Relations Board would consider in determining whether or not it was in fact protected. The court also considered it "arguable" that the Union had engaged in recognitional picketing subject to § 8 (b)(7)(C) of the Act, 29 U. S. C. § 158 (b)(7)(C), which could not continue for more than 30 days without petitioning for a representation election. Because the picketing was both arguably protected by § 7 and arguably prohibited by § 8, the court held that state jurisdiction was pre-empted under the Garmon guidelines.

Since the Wagner Act was passed in 1935, this Court has not decided whether, or under what circumstances, a state court has power to enforce local trespass laws against a union's peaceful picketing.*fn6 The obvious importance of this problem led us to grant certiorari in this case. 430 U.S. 905.*fn7

[ 436 U.S. Page 185]

     II

We start from the premise that the Union's picketing on Sears' property after the request to leave was a continuing trespass in violation of state law.*fn8 We note, however, that the scope of the controversy in the state court was limited. Sears asserted no claim that the picketing itself violated any state or federal law. It sought simply to remove the pickets from its property to the public walkways, and the injunction issued by the state court was strictly confined to the relief sought. Thus, as a matter of state law, the location of the picketing was illegal but the picketing itself was unobjectionable.

As a matter of federal law, the legality of the picketing was unclear. Two separate theories would support an argument by Sears that the picketing was prohibited by § 8 of the NLRA, and a third theory would support an argument by the Union that the picketing was protected by § 7. Under each of these theories the Union's purpose would be of critical importance.

If an object of the picketing was to force Sears into assigning the carpentry work away from its employees to Union members

[ 436 U.S. Page 186]

     dispatched from the hiring hall, the picketing may have been prohibited by § 8 (b)(4)(D).*fn9 Alternatively, if an object of the picketing was to coerce Sears into signing a prehire or members-only type agreement with the Union, the picketing was at least arguably subject to the prohibition on recognitional picketing contained in § 8 (b)(7)(C).*fn10 Hence, if Sears had filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Union, the Board's concern would have been limited to the question whether the Union's picketing had an objective proscribed by the Act; the location of the picketing would have been irrelevant.

On the other hand, the Union contends that the sole objective of its action was to secure compliance by Sears with

[ 436 U.S. Page 187]

     area standards, and therefore the picketing was protected by § 7. Longshoremen v. Ariadne Shipping Co., 397 U.S. 195. Thus, if the Union had filed an unfair labor practice charge under § 8 (a)(1) when Sears made a demand that the pickets leave its property, it is at least arguable that the Board would have found Sears guilty of an unfair labor practice.

Our second premise, therefore, is that the picketing was both arguably prohibited and arguably protected by federal law. The case is not, however, one in which "it is clear or may fairly be assumed" that the subject matter which the state court sought to regulate -- that is, the location of the picketing -- is either prohibited or protected by the Federal Act.

III

In San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S. 236, the Court made two statements which have come to be accepted as the general guidelines for deciphering the unexpressed intent of Congress regarding the permissible scope of state regulation of activity touching upon labor-management relations. The first related to activity which is clearly protected or prohibited by the federal statute.*fn11 The second articulated a more sweeping prophylactic rule:

"When an activity is arguably subject to § 7 or § 8 of the Act, the States as well as the federal courts must defer to the exclusive competence of the National Labor Relations

[ 436 U.S. Page 188]

     Board if the danger of state interference with national policy is to be averted." Id., at 245.

While the Garmon formulation accurately reflects the basic federal concern with potential state interference with national labor policy, the history of the labor pre-emption doctrine in this Court does not support an approach which sweeps away state-court jurisdiction over conduct traditionally subject to state regulation without careful consideration of the relative impact of such a jurisdictional bar on the various interests affected.*fn12 As the Court noted last Term:

"Our cases indicate . . . that inflexible application of the doctrine is to be avoided, especially where the State has a substantial interest in regulation of the conduct at issue and the State's interest is one that does not threaten undue interference with the federal regulatory scheme." Farmer v. Carpenters, 430 U.S. 290, 302.

Thus the Court has refused to apply the Garmon guidelines in a literal, mechanical fashion.*fn13 This refusal demonstrates that

[ 436 U.S. Page 189]

     "the decision to pre-empt . . . state court jurisdiction over a given class of cases must depend upon the nature of the particular interests being asserted and the effect upon the administration of national labor policies" of permitting the state court to proceed. Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171, 180.*fn14

[ 436 U.S. Page 190]

     With this limitation in mind, we turn to the question whether pre-emption is justified in a case of this kind under either the arguably protected or the arguably prohibited branch of the Garmon doctrine. While the considerations underlying the two categories overlap, they differ in significant respects and therefore it is useful to review them separately. We therefore first consider whether the arguable illegality of the picketing as a matter of federal law should oust the state court of jurisdiction to enjoin its trespassory aspects. Thereafter, we consider whether the arguably protected character of the picketing should have that effect.

IV

The enactment of the NLRA in 1935 marked a fundamental change in the Nation's labor policies. Congress expressly recognized that collective organization of segments of the labor force into bargaining units capable of exercising economic power comparable to that possessed by employers may produce benefits for the entire economy in the form of higher wages, job security, and improved working conditions. Congress decided that in the long run those benefits would outweigh the occasional costs of industrial strife associated with the organization of unions and the negotiation and enforcement of collective-bargaining agreements. The earlier notion that union activity was a species of "conspiracy" and that strikes and picketing were examples of unreasonable restraints of trade was replaced by an unequivocal national declaration of policy establishing the legitimacy of labor unionization and encouraging the practice of collective bargaining.*fn15

[ 436 U.S. Page 191]

     The new federal statute protected the collective-bargaining activities of employees and their representatives and created a regulatory scheme to be administered by an independent agency which would develop experience and expertise in the labor relations area. The Court promptly decided that the federal agency's power to implement the policies of the new legislation was exclusive and the States were without power to enforce overlapping rules.*fn16 Accordingly, attempts to apply provisions of the "Little Wagner Acts" enacted by New York*fn17 and Wisconsin*fn18 were held to be pre-empted by the potential conflict with the federal regulatory scheme. Consistently with these holdings, the Court also decided that a State's employment relations board had no power to grant relief for violation of the federal statute.*fn19 The interest in uniform development of the new national labor policy required that matters which fell squarely within the regulatory jurisdiction of the federal Board be evaluated in the first instance by that agency.

The leading case holding that when an employer grievance against a union may be presented to the National Labor Relations

[ 436 U.S. Page 192]

     Board it is not subject to litigation in a state tribunal is Garner v. Teamsters, 346 U.S. 485. Garner involved peaceful organizational picketing which arguably violated § 8 (b)(2) of the federal Act.*fn20 A Pennsylvania equity court held that the picketing violated the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act and therefore should be enjoined. The State Supreme Court reversed because the union conduct fell within the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board to prevent unfair labor practices.

This Court affirmed because Congress had "taken in hand this particular type of controversy . . . [in] language almost identical to parts of the Pennsylvania statute," 346 U.S., at 488. Accordingly, the State, through its courts, was without power to "adjudge the same controversy and extend its own form of relief." Id., at 489. This conclusion did not depend on any surmise as to "how the National Labor Relations Board might have decided this controversy had petitioners presented it to that body." Ibid. The precise conduct in controversy was arguably prohibited by federal law and therefore state jurisdiction was pre-empted. The reason for pre-emption was clearly articulated:

"Congress evidently considered that centralized administration of specially designed procedures was necessary to obtain uniform application of its substantive rules and to avoid these diversities and conflicts likely to result from a variety of local procedures and attitudes toward labor controversies. Indeed, Pennsylvania passed a statute the same year as its labor relations Act reciting abuses of the injunction in labor litigations attributable more to procedure and usage than to substantive rules. A multiplicity of tribunals and a diversity of procedures are quite as apt to produce incompatible or conflicting adjudications as are different rules of substantive law. The same

[ 436 U.S. Page 193]

     reasoning which prohibits federal courts from intervening in such cases, except by way of review or on application of the federal Board, precludes state courts from doing so. Cf. Myers v. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., 303 U.S. 41; Amalgamated Utility Workers v. Consolidated Edison Co., 309 U.S. 261." Id., at 490-491 (footnote omitted). "The conflict lies in remedies . . . . [When] two separate remedies are brought to bear on the same activity, a conflict is imminent." Id., at 498-499.

This reasoning has its greatest force when applied to state laws regulating the relations between employees, their union, and their employer.*fn21 It may also apply to certain laws of general applicability which are occasionally invoked in connection with a labor dispute.*fn22 Thus, a State's antitrust law may not be invoked to enjoin collective activity which is also arguably prohibited by the federal Act. Capital Service, Inc. v. NLRB, 347 U.S. 501; Weber v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., 348 U.S. 468.*fn23 In each case, the pertinent inquiry is whether

[ 436 U.S. Page 194]

     the two potentially conflicting statutes were "brought to bear on precisely the same conduct." Id., at 479.*fn24

On the other hand, the Court has allowed a State to enforce

[ 436 U.S. Page 195]

     certain laws of general applicability even though aspects of the challenged conduct were arguably prohibited by § 8 of the NLRA. Thus, for example, the Court has upheld state-court jurisdiction over conduct that touches "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." San Diego Building Trades Council v. Garmon, 359 U.S., at 244. See Construction Workers v. Laburnum Constr. Corp., 347 U.S. 656 (threats of violence); Youngdahl v. Rainfair, Inc., 355 U.S. 131 (violence); Automobile Workers v. Russell, 356 U.S. 634 (violence); Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, 383 U.S. 53 (libel); Farmer v. Carpenters, 430 U.S. 290 (intentional infliction of mental distress).

In Farmer, the Court held that a union member, who alleged that his union had engaged in a campaign of personal abuse and harassment against him, could maintain an action for damages against the union and its officers for the intentional infliction of emotional distress. One aspect of the alleged campaign was discrimination by the union in hiring hall referrals.

[ 436 U.S. Page 196]

     Although such discrimination was arguably prohibited by §§ 8 (b)(1)(A) and 8 (b)(2) of the NLRA and therefore an unfair labor practice charge could have been filed with the Board, the Court permitted the state action to proceed.

The Court identified those factors which warranted a departure from the general pre-emption guidelines in the "local interest" cases. Two are relevant to the arguably prohibited branch of the Garmon doctrine.*fn25 First, there existed a significant state interest in protecting the citizen from the challenged conduct. Second, although the challenged conduct occurred in the course of a labor dispute and an unfair labor practice charge could have been filed, the exercise of state jurisdiction over the tort claim entailed little risk of interference with the regulatory jurisdiction of the Labor Board. Although the arguable federal violation and the state tort arose in the same factual setting, the respective controversies

[ 436 U.S. Page 197]

     presented to the state and federal forums would not have been the same.*fn26

The critical inquiry, therefore, is not whether the State is enforcing a law relating specifically to labor relations or one of general application but whether the controversy presented to the state court is identical to (as in Garner) or different from (as in Farmer) that which could have been, but was not, presented to the Labor Board. For it is only in the former situation that a state court's exercise of jurisdiction necessarily involves a risk of interference with the unfair labor ...


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