June 25, 2002

U.S. Supreme Court Holds Reasonably-Based Employer Lawsuits Against Labor Unions Do Not Violate National Labor Relations Act in BE&K Construction v. The National Labor Relations Board

3 min

Venable's Maurice Baskin Gains Unanimous Decision on Behalf of BE&K Construction

WASHINGTON, DC (June 25, 2002) – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously this week that reasonably based employer lawsuits against labor unions do not violate the National Labor Relations Act in BE&K Construction Company v. The National Labor Relations Board.

The ruling overturns an April 2001 finding by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and a previous ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which had ordered BE&K Construction of Birmingham, Alabama to pay attorneys' fees to California construction unions, against which BE&K had filed an unsuccessful lawsuit.

The Court reached a 5-4 split on what the standard should be in future cases, as to when employer lawsuits will constitute unfair labor practices. However, the majority opinion of the Court requires the NLRB to interpret its governing statute in a manner which avoids conflict with the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. As a result, the decision holds that reasonably based employer lawsuits, regardless of their outcome, will not violate the NLRA, so long as they are not filed solely with the motive of increasing union litigation costs.

"This is a very important decision for employers," said Maurice Baskin of the Washington, DC law firm of Venable -- the attorney who argued on behalf of BE&K Construction Co. "The Court declared invalid an unfair policy which the NLRB has applied for the last twenty years. The Court has recognized that employers' right of access to the courts in the labor context must be protected. The decision will allow employers to defend themselves in court against labor union attacks."

The case dates back to 1987 when BE&K sued the Contra Costa Building Trades Council in California, for seeking to delay construction on a $350 million project for USS-POSCO Industries through a "corporate campaign" that included picketing, frivolous lawsuits and seeking an environmental ordinance that would delay the construction process.

"Corporate campaigns similar to the campaign against BE&K have become a favored union tactic in recent years, resulting in many unfair attacks on employers involving slander, mass demonstrations, and secondary pressure against neutrals," said Mr. Baskin. "Employers faced with such unfair union tactics in the future will now have greater freedom to respond in court. The Supreme Court's BE&K decision will insure that reasonably based employer lawsuits are protected from punitive action by the NLRB."

One of the American Lawyer’s top 100 law firms, Venable LLP has attorneys practicing in all areas of corporate and business law, complex litigation, intellectual property and government affairs. Venable serves corporate, institutional, governmental, nonprofit and individual clients throughout the U.S. and around the world from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and offices in California, Maryland, New York and Virginia.