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Dole v. Local 427

filed: January 18, 1990.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey -- Newark (D.C. Civil Action No. 87-3575)

Higginbotham, Jr., Chief Judge, and Mansmann and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham



This appeal arises from an action filed by the Secretary of Labor on behalf of the United States of America ("the Government") pursuant to sections 104 and 210 of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act ("LMRDA" or the "Act"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 414 & 440 (1982). The Government sought to enjoin a local union from refusing to permit one of its members to review collective bargaining agreements between the union and employers other than her own. The district court granted the defendant union's motion for summary judgment and dismissed this action on the grounds that it was barred by the statute of limitations. In so doing, the district court imported the six months statute of limitations of § 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") ("section 10(b)"), 29 U.S.C. § 160(b) (1982), since section 104 of the LMRDA is silent as to any statute of limitations. We hold that no statute of limitations should apply to suits of this type brought by the Government under section 104 of the LMRDA.


The essential facts of this case are undisputed. In a letter dated June 18, 1986, Hortensia Colmenares, a member of Local 427, International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, AFL-CIO ("Local 427" or "the union"), requested a copy of the collective bargaining agreement entered into between Local 427 and her employer, Keene Corporation. In this letter, she also asked to review the collective bargaining agreements that Local 427 had entered into with employers other than Keene Corporation. Local 427, a local labor organization governed by the provisions of the LMRDA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 401-531 (1982) represents approximately 60 different shops throughout New Jersey and New York City. Brock v. Local 427 Int'l Union of Elec. Radio & Mach. Workers, 682 F. Supp. 1315, 1317 (D.N.J. 1988). On June 26, 1986, Ms. Colmenares presented a copy of the June 18th letter to the president of Local 427, Henry Annucci. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Colmenares received a copy of the most recent Local 427/Keene Corporation collective bargaining agreement. However, by a letter dated August 22, 1986, Local 427 informed Ms. Colmenares that it would not permit her to inspect its collective bargaining agreements with other employers. In explaining its refusal to permit review of these other agreements, the union asserted that Ms. Colmenares' request was a "fishing expedition" which threatened to reveal employers' confidential information "in a process which could expose them to non-union or other competition." Id. at 1317, n.2. (quoting Letter dated August 22, 1986 of Cesar C. Gauzzo, counsel to Local 427, to Hortensia Colmenares).

Shortly after receiving this information, on September 8, 1986, Ms. Colmenares filed an official complaint with the Department of Labor. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor and counsel for the union attempted unsuccessfully to resolve the dispute through correspondence. However, at no time during these communications did Local 427 indicate that it might change its position in this matter.

On September 1, 1987, the Secretary of Labor, pursuant to her authority under section 210 of the LMRDA,*fn2 commenced this action in the district court. Id. at 1317. The Secretary of Labor filed for summary judgment on substantive grounds that are not before us now. The union filed for summary judgment both on substantive grounds and based on the assertion that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations. Id. The district court granted the defendant union's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the suit was time-barred and accordingly dismissed the plaintiff's suit. Id. This appeal followed.


In general, the structure of the LMRDA contemplates enforcement both by private citizens for alleged violations of Title I of the Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 411-415 (1982), and also by the Secretary of Labor for alleged violations of Title II of the Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 431-441. Brock v. Local 427, 682 F. Supp. at 1317-18. Section 104 of the LMDRA, the section at issue in the case before us now, provides both for private suits by union members and for suits brought by the Secretary of Labor.*fn3 Forline v. Helpers Local No. 42, 211 F. Supp. 315, 319 (E.D.Pa. 1962). Congress thus conceived of Government suits as an integral part of the enforcement mechanism of section 104. Title I of the LMRDA makes no reference to a statute of limitations within which an action enforcing any of its sections must be brought.

The issue in this case is which statute of limitations, if any, is most appropriately applied to Title I of the LMRDA, and whether under that limitations period, the action filed by the Secretary is time-barred or timely. Because the district court dismissed the Secretary's claim as time-barred, the court had no occasion to rule on the substantive validity of the Secretary's claim. Brock v. Local 427, 682 F. Supp. at 1323. Accordingly, the statute of limitations question is the only issue before us now. We have plenary review of this issue of law.


The district court wrote without the guidance of Reed v. United Transp. Union, 109 S. t. 621 (1989), the most recent Supreme Court opinion to address the issue of which statute of limitations to apply to suits brought to enforce employees' Title I rights against their unions. The case before us was briefed and argued to the district court and this appellate court prior to the Supreme-Court's decision in Reed. As the district court's decision to apply the six months' statute of limitations of § 10(b) of the NLRA's prohibition of unfair labor practices is inconsistent with Reed, the district court is clearly incorrect under current law.*fn4 Since Reed, while vitiating the reasoning of the district court, dealt only with the appropriate statute of limitations for private actions brought under section 101(a)(2) of the LMRDA,*fn5 it is does not control on the issue now before this court: what statute of limitations, if any, should be applied to section 104 of the LMRDA to govern Government suits brought for a public purpose. Past precedents dictate that no statute of limitations should be applied to section 104 suits brought by the Government to protect the public interest.

As a general matter, no statute of limitations will be applied in civil actions brought by the Government, unless Congress explicitly imposes such time limitations. Guaranty Trust Co. v. United States, 304 U.S. 126, 132, 82 L. Ed. 1224, 58 S. Ct. 785 (1938)*fn6; Glenn Electric Co., Inc. v. Donovan, 755 F.2d 1028, 1033 (3d Cir. 1985) (citing the principle but declining to apply it in an action by the Department of Housing and Urban Development against a contractor). This principle, expressed in the maxim, nullum tempus occurrit regi (time does not run against the king) was settled as early as 1840 in United States v. Knight, 39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 301, 315, 10 L. Ed. 465 (1840). In that case, the court recited the general rule in England governing limitations running against the Crown.

[Where] an act of parliament is made for the public good, the advancement of religion and justice, and to prevent injury and wrong, the king shall not be bound by such act, though not particularly named therein. But where a statute is general, and thereby any prerogative, right, title or interest is divested or taken from the king, in such case he shall not be bound; unless that statute is made, by express words, to extend to him. It is a settled principle, that the king is not, ordinarily, barred, unless named by an act of limitations.

Id. at 315. The doctrine continues to have vitality on public policy grounds "that the public interest should not be prejudiced by the negligence of public officers, to whose care they are confided." Id. Accord Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Board of University and School Lands, 461 U.S. 273, 290, 75 L. Ed. 2d 840, 103 S. Ct. 1811 (1983) (quoting the principle but declining to apply it to an action by a state against the federal Government); Costello v. United States, 365 U.S. 265, 281, 5 L. Ed. 2d 551, 81 S. Ct. 534 (1961) (where the Government sought to divest a naturalized citizen of his citizenship, laches and statute of limitations did not apply); Guaranty Trust Co., 304 U.S. at 132 (1938) (quoting the principle but declining to apply it to an action brought out of time by a foreign Government); United States v. Nashville, Co. & St. L. Ry. Co., 118 U.S. 120, 126, 30 L. Ed. 81, 6 S. Ct. 1006 (1886) (no statute of limitations applied when the Government held bonds in trust for public use).

Another line of authority extends this principle to include those situations where the Government sues to enforce public rights. In United States v. Summerlin, 310 U.S. 414, 416-17, 84 L. Ed. 1283, 60 S. Ct. 1019 (1940), where the Federal Housing Administrator filed a claim against an individual's estate, the Court held that the Government is not bound by a limitations period when suing in its Governmental capacity whether the action is filed in state or federal court. In Summerlin, the court reasoned that "[when] the United States becomes entitled to a claim, acting in its governmental capacity, and asserts its claim in that right, it cannot be deemed to have abdicated its governmental authority so as to become subject to a state statute of limitations." Id. at 417.

In the case at bar, we are confronted with an issue for which there is no precise precedent, a recurrent experience when interpreting the meaning of legislation. Although the parties have properly relied on what they believe are the closest adjudicated analogies, neither party has cited a case which is directly on point -- where the Secretary of the Department of Labor sued under Title I of the LMRDA and where the suit was dismissed on the ground that the Government failed to comply with the statute of limitations.

The cases we have cited express the abstract principle that in certain situations, no statute of limitations runs against the Government. However, the factual situations described in these cases, are different from the facts in the present case. Accordingly, we must factually analyze and distill the instant case to determine whether it is appropriate to apply the principle to the present action. Thus, this case involves what thoughtful scholars call "the anatomy of [a] precedent."*fn7 While in the case at bar, we think that this general principle tilts strongly in the Government's favor, we recognize that all of the cases cited by the parties (or the concurrence) involve different factual situations or statutory settings. Many of the cases cited in the concurrence do not involve the Government as a litigant*fn8 and some of the cases which we cite involve statutes which have legislative histories different from that of the LMRDA.*fn9 In fact, we are dealing with what Justice Cardozo has called the interstitial spaces of the law.*fn10 Though we find the concurrence somewhat myopic in its reading of the most analogous cases, the position taken is plausible.

In our view, the deficiency of the concurrence is the great weight it gives to those cases involving a dramatically different factual or statutory setting, its reliance on these cases to conclude that the Government's role here is akin to a private action suit, and its conclusion that there is no public interest at risk. The critical issue here -- for both the majority and the concurrence -- is whether the Government was "acting in its Governmental capacity" and "asserting its claim in that right" or whether the Government was acting in what the concurrence claims was nothing more than a "dispute between two [private] parties, Ms. Colmenares and Local 427." Concurring Op. Typescript at 3. In determining whether this litigation involves a public or private issue, the concurrence relies primarily on U.S. v. Beebe, 127 U.S. 338, 32 L. Ed. 121, 8 S. Ct. 1083 (1888). In Beebe, the Attorney General brought a suit in equity allegedly on behalf of the United States to set aside and cancel certain patents for about 480 acres of land issued in favor of Roger Beebe, who had died "many years ago." Id. The suit was commenced 45 years after the cause of action arose.

In Beebe, the Government admitted that the United States "did not own the land embraced in [the land patents] but that on the contrary, said land was legally appropriated by other persons and was therefore segregated from the public domain." Id. at 339. Beebe involved nothing more than a private dispute as to which of two families owned the land -- the Philbrook heirs or the Beebe heirs. Id. at 339-40. No basic issue of public policy or democracy was involved; it was indistinguishable from thousands of cases to settle a title as to who owns Blackacre. Nevertheless, even in that private setting, the court felt compelled to note first that

[the] principle that the United States are not bound by any statute of limitations, nor barred by any laches of their officers, however gross, in a suit brought by them as a sovereign government to enforce a public right, or to assert a public interest, is established past all controversy or doubt. (citation omitted).

Id. at 344 (emphases added). The Court recognized a narrow exception to the general rule against subjecting actions by the federal Government to statutes of limitation when such actions do not assert any public right or protect any public interest, title or property. Id. at 347. After a careful review of the intricacies of this land dispute, the court stressed that

this case stands upon a different footing and presents a different question. The question is, are these defenses available to the defendant in the case where the government, although a nominal complainant party, has no real interest in the litigation, but has allowed his name to be used therein for the sole benefit of a private person?

Id. (emphases added).

The concurrence draws an analogy between the present action by the Secretary on behalf of Ms. Colmenares, and the problems of the Philbrook heirs in a land dispute and concludes that the issue here merely involves the "assertion of Colmenares's private rights". Concurring Op. Typescript at 9. To rely on the Beebe case as the foundation of one's analysis, and to assume that the Government is a "nominal complainant" who has "no real interest in the ...

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