WASHINGTON-The federal district court in Washington had no jurisdiction to order Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. to obey subpoenas from the National Labor Relations Board, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has ruled.
A Cooper spokeswoman said the tire maker is pleased over the Feb. 28 decision and looking forward to the next step of the case. An NLRB spokesman said the agency hasn´t yet decided whether to appeal to the full 11-judge panel of the appeals court or go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case arose from an unsuccessful 2002 campaign by the United Steelworkers of America to organize workers at the Cooper tire plant in Tupelo, Miss. The USWA filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, claiming the company prohibited the union from passing out leaflets in the parking lot, used camera surveillance on pro-union employees and showed anti-union videotapes to workers.
According to the majority court decision, the NLRB regional office in Mississippi referred the case to its Contempt Litigation and Compliance Branch in Washington. The agency wanted to determine if Cooper´s actions violated a 1992 cease-and-desist order that settled accusations the company illegally forbade union solicitation in non-work areas of the Tupelo plant.
Cooper complied with the first NLRB subpoena requesting information on the matter, but balked at two further subpoenas requesting the disputed videotapes and information surrounding their showing. The agency filed suit in D.C. federal district court, seeking to force Cooper to obey the subpoenas.
Cooper moved for dismissal of the case or, alternatively, a transfer to the Northern Mississippi district court. A magistrate judge denied Cooper´s motion, and in September 2004 the D.C. district court ordered Cooper to comply with the subpoenas.
In its appeal, Cooper noted the videotapes weren´t part of the USW´s original charges, and the six-month statute of limitations had passed to file a complaint regarding their showing. Therefore, the company claimed, the NLRB was trying to circumvent the statute.
However, the two-judge majority in the appeals court did not rule on this question, finding instead that the NLRB had interpreted its jurisdiction too broadly. Federal law allows the agency to file a subpoena enforcement brief before a district court in the jurisdiction where an inquiry is carried out. This meant the agency should have filed its brief in Mississippi, since the alleged misconduct occurred only in Tupelo, the majority ruled.
The dissenting judge agreed with the NLRB that the language of the statute encompasses the location of the agency office conducting the investigation, which in this case was Washington. The majority´s interpretation of the law was unacceptably narrow, according to the dissent.
"The majority´s decision now places a burden on federal agencies...by requiring agencies that investigate wrongdoing from their District of Columbia offices to enforce their subpoenas in jurisdictions all over the country, unless they can demonstrate that the conduct at issue is nationwide," the dissent said.