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United Steelworkers of America v. Cork

argued: May 24, 1994.

UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA, AFL-CIO-CLC
v.
CROWN CORK & SEAL CO., INC. APPELLANT (IN NO. 93-2008); CHARLES A. THOMAS; DARREN BOOP; ROBERT W. BOWER; WILLIAM D. BRIDGE; JAMES CLINGAN; NEAL B. HOUSNER; JONATHAN L. NOAKER; WAYNE D. ORNER; GERALD W. RANCK; HAROLD E. VAN SICKLE, JR.; RICHARD A. WINTER; EUGENE L. WITMER, SR., APPELLANTS (IN NO. 93-7613) V. NORTH STAR STEEL COMPANY



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 92-cv-05968). On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (D.C. No. 92-cv-01507)

Before: Cowen and Roth, Circuit Judges, Ackerman, District Judge*fn*

Author: Ackerman

ACKERMAN, District Judge.

These two cases present the following discrete issue: In an action brought pursuant to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2101 et seq. ("WARN"), a statute which, like so many others, fails to explicitly provide a statute of limitations, should we follow the general rule and borrow a state statute of limitations or should we instead opt for the six-month statute of limitations set forth in section 10(b) of the federal National Labor Relations Act. The two cases present the identical issue for review and we will consider both cases in this Opinion.

For the reasons detailed below, we find that for cases arising under WARN, courts should apply the most closely analogous state statute of limitations. Thus, we will reverse the decision in Thomas v. North Star Steel and will affirm the decision in United Steelworkers of America v. Crown, Cork & Seal.

Background

Both of the underlying cases were filed pursuant to WARN, a federal statute which requires companies with one hundred or more employees to provide their workers with a minimum of sixty days written notice before a plant closing or mass layoff.*fn1 Employers who fail to provide the requisite notice must compensate employees suffering an employment loss for each day of the violation. The statute creates a private civil action for damages in federal court.

On September 9, 1991, the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC, filed a complaint in federal court alleging that the North Star Steel Company ("North Star") had violated the WARN Act by failing to give the union sixty days advance notice of a February 25, 1991 layoff of about 270 people, at the company's Milton, Pennsylvania plant. Although the suit was filed more than six months after the layoff occurred, North Star did not raise the statute of limitations as a defense. On April 9, 1992, the district court granted the union's motion for summary judgment on liability, holding that the layoff constituted a "plant closing" subject to WARN. In a separate Order, dated December 11, 1992, the district Judge determined the number of days for which the company was required to pay WARN damages. United Steelworkers v. North Star Steel, 809 F. Supp. 5, 6-7 (M.D.Pa. 1992), aff'd 5 F.3d 39 (1993).

Appellants were non-unionized employees of North Star, unrepresented by the union and hence unaffected by the union's successful lawsuit against North Star. They therefore filed a separate action, the instant case, also seeking damages pursuant to WARN. On May 25, 1993, the district court granted North Star's motion for summary judgment, finding that the action was barred under what it deemed to be the applicable statute of limitations. The employees' motion for reconsideration was denied on August 26, 1993. This appeal followed.

United Steelworkers of America v. Crown Cork & Seal Co., Inc. ("Crown Cork"), arises out of an event that took place on September 30, 1991. On that day, the company ordered a reduction- in-force and shutdown of its Perry, Georgia plant. As a result of this reduction in force, about 85 employees were terminated. On October 15, 1992, the United Steelworkers of America (the union) filed a complaint, alleging that the company violated WARN by failing to give it 60 days notice prior to the shutdown. Crown, Cork & Seal then moved for summary judgment, contending that the action was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The district court denied the motion on August 24, 1993 but in an order dated September 26, 1993, certified the August order for immediate interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292.

We have jurisdiction over the appeal in Thomas v. North Star Steel pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Our jurisdiction over United Steelworkers of America v. Crown, Cork & Seal arises from our October 13, 1993 Order granting the company permission to appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). Our review over both cases is plenary.

Discussion

In this case we visit a general question of federal law that we have repeatedly addressed: When a federal statute does not contain an explicit statute of limitations, when is it appropriate to borrow a statute of limitations from elsewhere in federal law rather than adopting the most closely analogous state statute of limitations.

The companies argue that in this case, a federal statute -- the six-month statute of limitations contained in section 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") for filing a claim of an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") -- provides the most appropriate limitations period. The employees and the union exhort us to borrow one of various state statutes. Courts addressing the question have adopted both approaches. Some have borrowed the six-month § 10(b) statute; see, e.g., Newspaper and Mail Delivers' Union of N.Y. and Vicinity v. United Magazine Co., 809 F. Supp. 185 (E.D.N.Y. 1992) (adopting NLRA statute); Staudt v. Glastron, Inc., No. SA-92-CA-1174, (W.D.Tex. February 23, 1993) (same). Other courts, including the only Court of Appeals to reach the question, have expressly considered and rejected the section 10(b) six-month period, instead opting for various state law limitations periods. See, e.g. United Paperworkers Local 340 v. Specialty Paperboard, Inc., 999 F.2d 51 (2d Cir. 1992) (hereinafter United Paperworkers); Wallace v. Detroit Coke Corp., 818 F. Supp. 192 (E.D. Mich. 1993) (rejecting NLRA statute ...


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