Each of these cases arose as a suit by an employee or employees against an employer and a union, alleging that the employer had breached a provision of a collective-bargaining agreement, and that the union had breached its duty of fair representation by mishandling the ensuing grievance-and-arbitration proceedings. See infra, at 162; Bowen v. USPS, 459 U.S. 212 (1983); Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967); Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., 424 U.S. 554 (1976). The issue presented is what statute of limitations should apply to such suits. In United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Mitchell, 451 U.S. 56 (1981), we held that a similar suit was governed by a state statute of limitations for vacation of an arbitration award, rather than by a state statute for an action on a contract. We left two points open, however. First, our holding was limited to the employee's claim against the employer; we did not address what state statute should govern the claim against the union.
Philip DelCostello, petitioner in No. 81-2386, was employed as a driver by respondent Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., and represented by respondent Teamsters Local 557. On June 27, 1977, he quit or was discharged
On March 16, 1978, DelCostello filed this suit in the District of Maryland against the employer and the union. He
Donald C. Flowers and King E. Jones, respondents in No. 81-2408, were employed as craft welders by Bethlehem Steel Corp. and represented by petitioner Steelworkers Local 2602.
Respondents filed this suit in the Western District of New York on January 9, 1979, naming both the employer and the union as defendants. The complaint alleged that the company's work assignments violated the collective-bargaining agreement, and that the union's "preparation, investigation and handling" of respondents' grievances were "so inept and careless as to be arbitrary and capricious," in violation of the union's duty of fair representation. App. in No. 81-2408, p. 10. The District Court dismissed the complaint against both defendants, holding that the entire suit was governed by New York's 90-day statute of limitations for actions to vacate arbitration awards.
In this Court, petitioners in both cases contend that suits under Vaca v. Sipes, 386 U.S. 171 (1967), and Hines v. Anchor Motor Freight, Inc., 424 U.S. 554 (1976), should be governed by the 6-month limitations period of § 10(b) of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U. S. C. § 160(b). Alternatively, the Steelworkers, petitioners in No. 81-2408, argue that the state statute for vacation of arbitration awards should apply to a claim against a union as well as to one against an employer.
As is often the case in federal civil law, there is no federal statute of limitations expressly applicable to this suit. In such situations we do not ordinarily assume that Congress intended that there be no time limit on actions at all; rather, our task is to "borrow" the most suitable statute or other rule of timeliness from some other source. We have generally concluded that Congress intended that the courts apply the most closely analogous statute of limitations under state law.
Auto Workers v. Hoosier Cardinal Corp. was a straight-forward suit under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U. S. C. § 185, for breach of a collective-bargaining agreement by an employer. Unlike the present cases, Hoosier did not involve any agreement to submit disputes to arbitration, and the suit was brought by the union itself rather than by an individual employee. We held that the suit was governed by Indiana's 6-year limitations period for actions on unwritten contracts; we resisted the suggestion that we establish some uniform federal period. Although we recognized that "the subject matter of § 301 is `peculiarly one that calls for uniform law,' " 383 U. S., at 701, quoting Teamsters v. Lucas Flour Co., 369 U.S. 95, 103 (1962), we reasoned that national uniformity is of less importance when the
Justice Stewart, who wrote the Court's opinion in Hoosier, took this caution to heart in Mitchell. He concurred separately in the judgment, arguing that the factors that compelled adoption of state law in Hoosier did not apply to suits under Vaca and Hines, and that in the latter situation we should apply the federal limitations period of § 10(b). 451 U. S., at 65-71. As we shall explain, we agree.
It has long been established that an individual employee may bring suit against his employer for breach of a collective-bargaining agreement. Smith v. Evening News Assn., 371 U.S. 195 (1962). Ordinarily, however, an employee is required to attempt to exhaust any grievance or arbitration remedies provided in the collective-bargaining agreement. Republic Steel Corp. v. Maddox, 379 U.S. 650 (1965); cf. Clayton v. Automobile Workers, 451 U.S. 679 (1981)
In Mitchell, we analogized the employee's claim against the employer to an action to vacate an arbitration award in a commercial setting. We adhere to the view that, as between the two choices, it is more suitable to characterize the claim that way than as a suit for breach of contract. Nevertheless, the parallel is imperfect in operation. The main difference is that a party to commercial arbitration will ordinarily be represented by counsel or, at least, will have some experience in matters of commercial dealings and contract negotiation. Moreover, an action to vacate a commercial arbitral award will rarely raise any issues not already presented and contested in the arbitration proceeding itself. In the labor setting,
Moreover, as JUSTICE STEVENS pointed out in his opinion in Mitchell, analogy to an action to vacate an arbitration
JUSTICE STEVENS suggested an alternative solution for the claim against the union: borrowing the state limitations period for legal malpractice. Id., at 72-75; see post, at 174 (STEVENS, J., dissenting); post, at 175 (O'CONNOR, J., dissenting). The analogy here is to a lawyer who mishandles a commercial arbitration. Although the short limitations period for vacating the arbitral award would protect the interest in finality of the opposing party to the arbitration, the misrepresented party would retain his right to sue his lawyer for malpractice under a longer limitations period. This solution is admittedly the closest state-law analogy for the claim against the union. Nevertheless, we think that it too suffers from objections peculiar to the realities of labor relations and litigation.
The most serious objection is that it does not solve the problem caused by the too-short time in which an employee could sue his employer under borrowed state law. In a commercial setting, a party who sued his lawyer for bungling an
Further, while application of a short arbitration period as against employers would endanger employees' ability to recover most of what is due them, application of a longer malpractice statute as against unions would preclude the relatively rapid final resolution of labor disputes favored by federal law — a problem not present when a party to a commercial arbitration sues his lawyer. In No. 81-2408, for example, the holding of the Court of Appeals would permit a suit as long as three years after termination of the grievance proceeding; many States provide for periods even longer.
See also Hoosier, 383 U. S., at 706-707; Machinists v. NLRB, 362 U.S. 411, 425 (1960).
These objections to the resort to state law might have to be tolerated if state law were the only source reasonably available for borrowing, as it often is. In this case, however, we have available a federal statute of limitations actually designed to accommodate a balance of interests very similar to that at stake here — a statute that is, in fact, an analogy to the present lawsuit more apt than any of the suggested state-law parallels.
At least as important as the similarity of the rights asserted in the two contexts, however, is the close similarity of
We stress that our holding today should not be taken as a departure from prior practice in borrowing limitations periods for federal causes of action, in labor law or elsewhere. We do not mean to suggest that federal courts should eschew use of state limitations periods anytime state law fails to provide a perfect analogy. See, e. g., Mitchell, 451 U. S., at 61, n. 3. On the contrary, as the courts have often discovered, there is not always an obvious state-law choice for application to a given federal cause of action; yet resort to state law remains the norm for borrowing of limitations periods. Nevertheless,
In No. 81-2408, it is conceded that the suit was filed more than 10 months after respondents' causes of action accrued. The Court of Appeals held the suit timely under a state 3-year statute for malpractice actions. Since we hold that the suit is governed by the 6-month provision of § 10(b), we reverse the judgment.
The situation is less clear in No. 81-2386. Depending on when the joint committee's decision is thought to have been rendered, the suit was filed some seven or eight months afterwards. Petitioner DelCostello contends, however, that certain events operated to toll the running of the statute of limitations until about three months before he filed suit. Since the District Court applied a 30-day limitations period, it expressly declined to consider any tolling issue. 524 F. Supp., at 725. Hence, the judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE STEVENS, dissenting.
For the past century federal judges have "borrowed" state statutes of limitations, not because they thought it was a sensible
Today the Court holds that the Rules of Decision Act does not determine the result in these cases, because it believes that a separate federal law, growing out of "the policies and requirements of the underlying cause of action," ante, at 159, n. 13, "otherwise require[s] or provide[s]." The Court's opinion sets forth a number of reasons why it may make good sense to adopt a 6-month statute of limitations, but nothing in that opinion persuades me that the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States "require or provide" that this particular limitations period must be applied to this case.
For these reasons, I respectfully dissent.
JUSTICE O'CONNOR, dissenting.
As the Court recognizes, "resort to state law [is] the norm for borrowing of limitations periods." Ante, at 171. When federal law is silent on the question of limitations, we borrow state law in the belief that, given our longstanding practice and congressional awareness of it, we can safely assume, in the absence of strong indications to the contrary, that Congress intends by its silence that we follow the usual rule.
"Provided . . . no complaint shall issue based upon any unfair labor practice occurring more than six months prior to the filing of the charge with the Board and the service of a copy thereof upon the person against whom such charge is made . . . ."
The petition for certiorari in Mitchell presented only the question of which state statute of limitations should apply. The parties did not contend in this Court or below that a federal limitations period should be used instead of analogous state law. Only an amicus suggested that it would be more appropriate to use § 10(b); moreover, application of § 10(b) rather than the state arbitration statute of limitations would not have changed the outcome of the case. Hence, we declined to address the issue. 451 U. S., at 60, n. 2.
Justice Stewart, concurring in the judgment, would have reached the issue and would have applied § 10(b) rather than any state limitations period. Id., at 65-71. See also id., at 64-65 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring); but see id., at 75-76, and nn. 8, 9 (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).
Justice Stewart pointed out in Mitchell that this line of reasoning makes more sense as applied to a cause of action expressly created by Congress than as applied to one found by the courts to be implied in a general statutory scheme — especially when that general statutory scheme itself contains a federal statute of limitations for a related but separate form of relief. 451 U. S., at 68, n. 4 (opinion concurring in judgment); see also McAllister v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 357 U.S. 221, 228-229 (1958) (BRENNAN, J., concurring). The suits at issue here, of course, are amalgams, based on both an express statutory cause of action and an implied one. See infra, at 164-165, and n. 14. We need not address whether, as a general matter, such cases should be treated differently; even if this action were considered as arising solely under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U. S. C. § 185, the objections to use of state law and the availability of a well-suited limitations period in § 10(b) would call for application of the latter rule.
"There will often be no specific federal legislation governing a particular transaction . . . ; here, for example, no provision of the . . . Act guides us to choose state or federal law in interpreting . . . agreements under the Act. . . . But silence on that score in federal legislation is no reason for limiting the reach of federal law . . . . To the contrary, the inevitable incompleteness presented by all legislation means that interstitial federal lawmaking is a basic responsibility of the federal courts. `At the very least, effective Constitutionalism requires recognition of power in the federal courts to declare, as a matter of common law or "judicial legislation," rules which may be necessary to fill in interstitially or otherwise effectuate the statutory patterns enacted in the large by Congress. In other words, it must mean recognition of federal judicial competence to declare the governing law in an area comprising issues substantially related to an established program of government operation.' " Id., at 593, quoting Mishkin, The Variousness of "Federal Law": Competence and Discretion in the Choice of National and State Rules for Decision, 105 U. Pa. L. Rev. 797, 800 (1957).
See also Western & Lehman, Is There Life for Erie After the Death of Diversity?, 78 Mich. L. Rev. 311, 352-359, and nn. 122 and 142, 368-370, 377-378, 380, n. 207, 381-385 (1980); n. 21, infra.
Respondents in No. 81-2386 rely on a few turn-of-the-century cases suggesting that the Rules of Decision Act compels application of state limitations periods. See also post, at 173, n. 1 (STEVENS, J., dissenting). These cases, however, predate our recognition in Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), that "the purpose of the section was merely to make certain that, in all matters except those in which some federal law is controlling, the federal courts exercising jurisdiction in diversity of citizenship cases would apply as their rules of decision the law of the State, unwritten as well as written." Id., at 72-73 (footnote omitted); see also Warren, New Light on the History of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, 37 Harv. L. Rev. 49, 81-88 (1923). Since Erie, no decision of this Court has held or suggested that the Act requires borrowing state law to fill gaps in federal substantive statutes. Of course, we have continued since Erie to apply state limitations periods to many federal causes of action; but we made clear in Holmberg v. Armbrecht, 327 U.S. 392, 394-395 (1946), that we do so as a matter of interstitial fashioning of remedial details under the respective substantive federal statutes, and not because the Rules of Decision Act or the Erie doctrine requires it. "The considerations that urge adjudication by the same law in all courts within a State when enforcing a right created by that State are hardly relevant for determining the rules which bar enforcement of [a] . . . right created not by a State legislature but by Congress." 327 U. S., at 394; see also Guaranty Trust Co. v. York, 326 U.S. 99, 101 (1945); Board of Comm'rs v. United States, 308 U.S. 343, 349-352 (1939); Hoosier, 383 U. S., at 703-704; id., at 709 (WHITE, J., dissenting); Employees v. Westinghouse Corp., 348 U.S. 437, 463 (1955) (Reed, J., concurring).
We do not suggest that the Erie doctrine is wholly irrelevant to all federal causes of action. On the contrary, where Congress directly or impliedly directs the courts to look to state law to fill in details of federal law, Erie will ordinarily provide the framework for doing so. See, e. g., Commissioner v. Estate of Bosch, 387 U.S. 456, 463-465 (1967) (applying Erie rules as to the proper source of state law in a tax case); 1A J. Moore, W. Taggart, A. Vestal, & J. Wicker, Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 0.325 (2d ed. 1982); 19 C. Wright, A. Miller, & E. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure § 4515 (1982); Western & Lehman, supra. But, as Holmberg recognizes, neither Erie nor the Rules of Decision Act can now be taken as establishing a mandatory rule that we apply state law in federal interstices. Indeed, the contrary view urged by respondents cannot be reconciled with the numerous cases that have declined to borrow state law, see infra, at 162-163, nor with our suggestion in Hoosier that we might not apply state limitations periods in a different case, 383 U. S., at 705, n. 7, 707, n. 9.
"That the laws of the several states, except where the constitution, treaties or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law in the courts of the United States in cases where they apply."
In 1895, construing that Act, we held that state statutes of limitations provided the relevant rules of decision in patent infringement actions, explaining:
"That this section [Rev. Stat. § 721] embraces the statutes of limitations of the several States has been decided by this court in a large number of cases, which are collated in its opinion in Bauserman v. Blunt, 147 U.S. 647 . . . . Indeed, to no class of state legislation has the above provision been more steadfastly and consistently applied than to statutes prescribing the time within which actions shall be brought within its jurisdiction." Campbell v. Haverhill, 155 U.S. 610, 614.
Accord, McClaine v. Rankin, 197 U.S. 154 (1905). In response to the suggestion that the Act was not intended to govern nondiversity cases raising federal questions — such as patent suits or suits under the National Labor Relations Act — we bluntly observed that "[t]he section itself neither contains nor suggests such a distinction." 155 U. S., at 616.