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Legal Update

The Railway Labor Act—Scope of Judicial Review

23 February 2009
Mayer Brown Legal Update

The Railway Labor Act (“RLA” or “Act”), 45 U.S.C. §§151 et seq., provides the framework for the resolution of labor disputes in the railroad and airline industries.  The grievance procedures established by the Act begin with a series of investigations, hearings, and conferences that take place on the railroad’s property and are collectively known as “on-property” proceedings.  If those procedures do not resolve the dispute, the parties may initiate arbitration proceedings, on the basis of the “on-property” record, before the National Railroad Adjustment Board (“Board”), which comprises four “divisions” (each having jurisdiction over different classes of employees).  If a party is dissatisfied with the Board’s decision, the RLA authorizes judicial review, but specifies only three grounds for such review:  (1) “failure of the division to comply with the requirements” of the Act; (2) “failure of the order to conform, or confine itself, to matters within the scope of the division’s jurisdiction”; or (3) “fraud or corruption by a member of the division making the order.”  45 U.S.C. §153 First (q).

Today, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen General Committee of Adjustment, Central Region (08-604), to consider whether, in addition to the three enumerated grounds for review under the Act, an alleged violation of the Due Process Clause authorizes a court to set aside an arbitration decision by the Board.  The Court’s resolution of the question will define the permissible scope of judicial review of RLA arbitration awards. 

In this case, the union sought to initiate arbitration proceedings before the Board, but the record failed to include evidence memorializing the parties’ on-property conference.  The Board dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction, based on a newly announced rule that the on-property record must contain evidence that a conference had occurred.  The district court denied the union’s petition for review, but the Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that retroactive enforcement of the Board’s new rule violated due process.  The Seventh Circuit’s decision deepened an existing disagreement among the circuits, several of which have held that judicial review of the Board’s decisions is limited to the three enumerated grounds in the RLA.  In its certiorari petition, the railroad asked the Court to resolve that conflict, and also raised the question whether retroactive application of the Board’s newly announced administrative rule in fact constitutes a violation of due process.

Absent extensions, which are likely, amicus briefs in support of the petitioner will be due on April 16, and amicus briefs in support of the respondent will be due on May 18.  Any questions about this case should be directed to (+1 202 263-3035) in our Washington, DC office.

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