Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36 (1974)
Relevant Facts: An employee covered by a collective bargaining agreement alleged that he was fired because of racial discrimination. After filing a grievance under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and losing in arbitration, he filed a complaint with the EEOC. The EEOC sided with the arbitrator, and dismissed the charge brought by the worker. The employee persisted by filing a Title VII claim in federal district court. The district court, and then the appellate court, held the plaintiff had no right to sue under Title VII because he was bound by the arbitrator’s finding.
Question Before The Court: Whether an employee has the right to pursue statutory claims in federal court irrespective of a requirement to arbitrate, and whether arbitration is an appropriate forum for resolving statutory claims.
The Opinion: The Supreme Court found for the worker, holding that an employee’s statutory right to a new trial under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not foreclosed by prior submission of his claim to final arbitration under the non-discrimination clause of a collective bargaining agreement. Identifying that “federal courts have been assigned plenary powers to secure compliance with Title VII,” and contrasting those judicial powers with the powers of the EEOC, the Court noted, “There is no suggestion in the statutory scheme that a prior arbitral decision either forecloses an individual’s right to sue or divests federal courts of jurisdiction. . .The private right of action remains an essential means of obtaining judicial enforcement of Title VII. In such cases, the private litigant not only redresses his own injury but also vindicates the important congressional policy against discriminatory employment practices.”
The Court’s opinion also spoke directly to whether a claim is actually “arbitrable” in the sense that the arbitrator is capable of fairly rendering a decision based on the law, when it provided, “The factfinding process in arbitration usually is not equivalent to judicial factfinding. The record of arbitral proceedings is not as complete; the usual rules of evidence do not apply; and rights and procedures common to civil trial, such as discovery . . . and compulsory testimony under oath, are often severely limited or unavailable. . . . It is the informality of arbitral procedure that enables it to function as an efficient, inexpensive, and expeditious means for dispute resolution. This same characteristic, however, makes arbitration a less appropriate forum for final resolution of Title VII issues than the federal courts.”
In considering the role of the arbitrator in adjudicating contractual claims versus statutory claims, the Court observed that “the arbitrator has authority only to resolve questions of contractual rights, and this authority remains, regardless of whether certain contractual rights are similar to, or duplicative of, the substantive rights secured by Title VII. . . . The choice of forums inevitably affects the scope of the substantive right to be vindicated. . . In submitting his grievance to arbitration, an employee seeks to vindicate his contractual rights . . . By contrast, in filing a lawsuit under Title VII, an employee asserts independent statutory rights accorded by Congress. . . . We think it clear there can be no prospective waiver of an employee’s rights under Title VII. . . . We hold that the federal policy favoring arbitration does not establish that an arbitrator’s resolution of a contractual claim is dispositive of a statutory claim under Title VII.”
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