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decided: April 20, 1981.



Rehnquist, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell, JJ., joined. Blackmun, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 64. Stewart, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 65. Stevens, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 71.

Author: Rehnquist

[ 451 U.S. Page 58]

 JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

We are called upon in this case to determine which state statute of limitations period should be borrowed and applied to an employee's action against his employer under § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, 61 Stat. 156, 29 U. S. C. § 185(a), and Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., 424 U.S. 554 (1976).


Petitioner United Parcel Service, Inc. (UPS), employed respondent Mitchell (respondent) as a car washer at its facility on Staten Island, N. Y. On January 13, 1977, respondent was discharged for dishonest acts, including falsifying his timecards and claiming payment for hours which he did not work. Respondent denied the charges against him and requested his union, Department Store and Wholesale Drivers, Warehousemen and Helpers, Local Union No. 177 (the Union), to file a grievance on his behalf contesting the discharge. UPS and the Union were parties to a collective-bargaining agreement which provided a grievance and arbitration procedure for the resolution of disputes covered by the agreement. App. 57-67. Pursuant to the agreement respondent's grievance was submitted to a panel of the Atlantic Area Parcel Grievance Committee, composed of three union and three company representatives (the Joint Panel). Cf. Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., supra, at 557, n. 2. The Joint Panel conducted a hearing, at which respondent was represented by the Union, and on February 16, 1977, it announced its decision that the discharge be upheld. App. 103-104. Under the collective-bargaining agreement this decision was "binding on all parties." Id., at 66; see id., at 103.

Seventeen months later, on July 20, 1978, respondent filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern

[ 451 U.S. Page 59]

     District of New York against the Union and UPS under § 301(a) of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U. S. C. § 185(a). See Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., supra. He alleged that the Union had breached its duty of fair representation and that UPS discharged him not for the stated reasons, which it knew to be false, but to achieve savings by replacing full-time employees with part-time employees. App. 7-13. Both UPS and the Union moved for summary judgment on the ground that the action was barred by New York's 90-day statute of limitations for actions to vacate arbitration awards. Section 7511(a) of the N. Y. Civ. Prac. Law (McKinney 1963) provides that "[an] application to vacate or modify an [arbitration] award may be made by a party within ninety days after its delivery to him."

The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of UPS and the Union, ruling that respondent's action was properly characterized as one to vacate the arbitration award entered against him. The court reasoned: "The relief sought was expressly denied in an arbitration award issued as a result of a full-scale arbitration proceeding. The effect of any grant of the relief sought . . . would be to vacate the determination of the arbitrators." App. 129. Respondent appealed and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. 624 F.2d 394 (1980). That court held that the District Court should have applied New York's 6-year limitations period for actions alleging breach of contract, N. Y. Civ. Prac. Law § 213(2) (McKinney 1972). It reasoned that respondent's action was analogous to a breach-of-contract action because the issues were whether the collective-bargaining agreement had been breached and whether the Union contributed to that breach by failure to discharge its duty of fair representation. The court further reasoned that a 6-year limitations period "provides for relatively rapid disposition of labor disputes without undermining an employee's ability to vindicate his rights through § 301 actions." 624 F.2d, at 397-398.

[ 451 U.S. Page 60]

     We granted UPS' petition for certiorari. 449 U.S. 898 (1980).*fn1


Congress has not enacted a statute of limitations governing actions brought pursuant to § 301 of the LMRA. As this Court pointed out in Auto Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp., 383 U.S. 696, 704-705 (1966), "the timeliness of a § 301 suit . . . is to be determined, as a matter of federal law, by reference to the appropriate state statute of limitations."*fn2 Our present task is to determine which limitations period is "the most appropriate one provided by state law." Johnson v. Railway Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 462 (1975). This depends upon an examination of the nature of the federal

[ 451 U.S. Page 61]

     claim and the federal policies involved. See Hoosier Cardinal, supra, at 706-707.

Although respondent did not style his suit as one to vacate the award of the Joint Panel, if he is successful the suit will have that direct effect. Respondent raises in his § 301 action the same claim that was raised before the Joint Panel -- that he was discharged in violation of the collective-bargaining agreement. He seeks the same relief he sought before the Joint Panel -- reinstatement with full backpay. In sum, "it is clear that [he] was dissatisfied with and simply seeks to upset the arbitrator's decision that the company did not wrongfully discharge him." Liotta v. National Forge Co., 629 F.2d 903, 905-906 (CA3 1980), cert. pending, No. 80-890.*fn3

The Court of Appeals purported to rely on this Court's decision in Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., but that decision strongly supports borrowing the limitations period for actions to vacate arbitration awards. As Hines makes clear, an employee may go behind a final and binding award under a collective-bargaining agreement and seek relief against his employer and union only when he demonstrates that his union's breach of its duty "seriously [undermined] the integrity of the arbitral process." 424 U.S., at 567. Hines rejected the suggestion that "erroneous arbitration decisions must stand" in the face of the union's breach of its duty, id., at 571, suggesting that the suits it sanctioned are aptly characterized as ones to vacate such arbitration decisions. Indeed the present

[ 451 U.S. Page 62]

     writer, though in dissent on the merits in Hines, characterized the action as one to "vacate an . . . arbitration award." Id., at 575. See also Humphrey v. Moore, 375 U.S. 335, 336 (1964) (issue characterized as whether to enjoin implementation of decision of joint panel).

It is true that respondent's underlying claim against his employer is based on the collective-bargaining agreement, a contract. It is not enough, however, for an employee such as respondent to prove that he was discharged in violation of the collective-bargaining agreement. "To prevail against either the company or the Union, petitioners must not only show that their discharge was contrary to the contract but must also carry the burden of demonstrating breach of duty by the Union. . . . The grievance processes cannot be expected to be error-free." Hines, 424 U.S., at 570-571. Thus respondent's characterization of his action against the employer as one for "breach of contract" ignores the significance of the fact that it was brought in the District Court pursuant to § 301 (a) of the LMRA and that the indispensable predicate for such an action is not a showing under traditional contract law that the discharge was a breach of the collective-bargaining agreement, but instead a demonstration that the Union breached its duty of fair representation. Since the conclusion of the Joint Panel was, under the collective-bargaining agreement, "binding on all parties," respondent was required in some way to show that the Union's duty to represent him fairly at the arbitration had been breached before he was entitled to reach the merits of his contract claim. This, in our view, makes the suit more analogous to an action to vacate an arbitration award than to a straight contract action.*fn4

[ 451 U.S. Page 63]

     We think that the unfair representation claim made by an employee against his union, even though his employer may ultimately be called upon to respond in damages for it if he is successful, is more a creature of "labor law" as it has developed since the enactment of § 301 than it is of general contract law. We said in Hoosier Cardinal that one of the leading federal policies in this area is the "relatively rapid disposition of labor disputes." 383 U.S., at 707. Cf. 29 U. S. C. § 160 (b) (6-month period under NLRA). This policy was one of the reasons the Court in Hoosier Cardinal chose the generally shorter period for actions based on an oral contract rather than that for actions upon a written contract, 383 U.S., at 707, and similar analysis supports our adoption of the shorter period for actions to vacate an arbitration award in this case.*fn5

It is important to bear in mind the observations made in the Steelworkers Trilogy that "the grievance machinery under a collective bargaining agreement is at the very heart of the system of industrial self-government. . . . The processing . . . machinery is actually a vehicle by which meaning and content are given to the collective bargaining agreement." Steelworkers v. Warrior & ...

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