Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co. (1974) 415 U.S. 36 94 S. Ct. 1011, 39 L. Ed. 2d 147, the plaintiff, an African-American employee of the defendant company and a union member, filed a grievance alleging wrongful discharge under the CBA in force between the company and his union.

The CBA, like the one in our case, prohibited discrimination against employees "on account of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or ancestry." (Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at p. 39 94 S. Ct. at p. 1015, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 153.)

Also like the CBA in our case, it provided for compulsory arbitration of grievances, required the arbitrator's decision to be based solely on interpretation of the CBA, and made that decision final and binding on all parties. ( Id. at pp. 41-42 94 S. Ct. at pp. 1016-1017, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 154.)

Although the plaintiff's grievance in Gardner-Denver did not expressly allege racial discrimination, the plaintiff filed a racial discrimination charge with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which referred it to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), before the arbitration hearing. (415 U.S. at pp. 39, 42 94 S. Ct. at pp. 1015-1017, 39 L. Ed. 2d at pp. 153-154.)

At the hearing, the plaintiff testified that his wrongful discharge was due to racial discrimination. ( Id. at p. 42 94 S. Ct. at pp. 1016-1017, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 155.)

The arbitrator ruled that the plaintiff had been discharged for just cause; he did not mention the racial discrimination claim. (Ibid.)

After the EEOC rejected the plaintiff's claim and notified him of his right to sue, the plaintiff brought suit under title VII in United States District Court. ( Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at p. 43 94 S. Ct. at p. 1017, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 155.)

The district court dismissed the suit on the ground of election of remedies: having voluntarily submitted his grievance to final arbitration, the plaintiff was bound by the arbitrator's decision, which considered the plaintiff's discrimination claim and resolved it adversely to him (even though the decision did not mention that claim). (Ibid.)

The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. (Ibid.)

The Supreme Court reversed. Pointing out that the policy considerations applying to "election of remedies" were the same, on these facts, as those that apply to res judicata and collateral estoppel ( Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at p. 49 & fn. 10 94 S. Ct. at p. 1020, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 159), the court explained why, "whatever doctrinal label is used," THE RESULT WOULD BE THE SAME: The arbitration did not bar the plaintiff from filing a title VII suit because contractual arbitration under the CBA did not and could not resolve his claim that the company violated his statutory rights.

The court began by expounding the important purposes of title VII and noting Congress's decision to give private parties a significant role in enforcing the statute through the courts. ( Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at pp. 44-45 94 S. Ct. at pp. 1017-1018, 39 L. Ed. 2d pp. 155-156.)

The court pointed out that, although "Title VII does not speak expressly to the relationship between federal courts and the grievance-arbitration machinery of collective-bargaining agreements," it gives federal courts "plenary powers to enforce the statutory requirements," it specifies the jurisdictional prerequisites to filing suit, and it does not state that prior arbitration forecloses an individual's right to file suit or divests the federal courts of jurisdiction. ( Id. at p. 47 94 S. Ct. at p. 1019, 39 L. Ed. 2d at pp. 157-158.)

On the contrary, title VII "provides for consideration of employment-discrimination claims in several forums. . . . And, in general, submission of a claim to one forum does not preclude a later submission to another. Fn. omitted." ( Id. at pp. 47-48 94 S. Ct. at p. 1019, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 158).) Thus, the court concluded:

". . . Title VII's purpose and procedures strongly suggest that an individual does not forfeit his private cause of action if he first pursues his grievance to final arbitration under the nondiscrimination clause of a collective-bargaining agreement." ( Id. at p. 49 94 S. Ct. at p. 1020, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 158.)

The court then explained why such arbitration cannot preclude title VII suits:

"In submitting his grievance to arbitration, an employee seeks to vindicate his contractual right under a collective-bargaining agreement.

By contrast, in filing a lawsuit under Title VII, an employee asserts independent statutory rights accorded by Congress.

The distinctly separate nature of these contractual and statutory rights is not vitiated merely because both were violated as a result of the same factual occurrence.

And certainly no inconsistency results from permitting both rights to be enforced in their respectively appropriate forums." ( Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at pp. 49-50 94 S. Ct. at p. 1020, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 159.)

The court held further that a union cannot waive its employees' statutory rights under title VII by entering into a CBA with an employer because of "the paramount congressional purpose behind Title VII," and that for the same reason an employee cannot waive title VII rights by submitting a grievance to arbitration under a CBA. ( Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at pp. 51-52 94 S. Ct. at p. 1021, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 160.)

Finally, the court rejected the company's proposed rule that "federal courts should defer to arbitral decisions on discrimination claims where:

(i) the claim was before the arbitrator;

(ii) the collective-bargaining agreement prohibited the form of discrimination charged in the suit under Title VII;

(iii) the arbitrator has authority to rule on the claim and to fashion a remedy." (Gardner-Denver, supra, 415 U.S. at pp. 55-56 94 S. Ct. at p. 1023, 39 L. Ed. 2d at p. 162.)

After noting that this rule would be open to many of the objections applicable to a rule of absolute preclusion ( id. at p. 56 94 S. Ct. at p. 1024, 39 L. Ed. 2d at pp. 162-163), the court held:

"Arbitral procedures, while well suited to the resolution of contractual disputes, make arbitration a comparatively inappropriate forum for the final resolution of rights created by Title VII." (Ibid.)

In Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co, 415 U.S. 36; 94 S. Ct. 1011; 39 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1974), a union employee exercised the compulsory arbitration provision contained in a collective bargaining agreement.

The Supreme Court held that the exercise of this provision did not preclude the employee from subsequently pursuing a Title VII claim in court.

Resting its decision in part on the then-common view that with respect to statutory rights arbitration was inferior to traditional litigation, the Court concluded that the employee could vindicate contractual rights against discrimination at arbitration and could enforce independent statutory rights through litigation. Alexander, 415 U.S. at 50-52.