Nathanson v. National Labor Relations Board/Dissent Jackson

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Jackson

United States Supreme Court

344 U.S. 25

NATHANSON  v.  NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD

 Argued: Oct. 23, 1952. --- Decided: Nov 10, 1952


Mr. Justice JACKSON, with whom Mr. Justice BLACK joins, dissenting.

I think we should affirm the judgment below. I agree that the claim is one which can be proved in bankruptcy by the United States. The same reasoning which enables the Government to assert the claim would seem to enable it to assert the priority.

The claims which the United States asserts herein are something more than merely private indebtedness. The debtor's liability, enforceable only by the Government, is one of the most important sanctions to effectuate the policy of the National Labor Relations Act. That is one, at least, of the reasons why Congress did not see fit to leave prosecution of these usually small claims to scattered and often impecunious individual wage earners in a multiplicity of actions.

I see nothing in the policy of the Bankruptcy Act which precludes these claims, allowed in the Government's right and in its name, from sharing in the Government's general priority. Title 11, § 104, sub. a sets up five levels of priority: first is administration expenses; second, wages not to exceed $600 to each claimant which have been earned within three months before commencement of bankruptcy proceedings; third, certain costs and expenses not material here; fourth, taxes legally due and owing by the bankrupt to the United States, or any state or any subdivision thereof; fifth, debts owing to any person, including the United States, who under its laws is entitled to priority.

It can hardly be questioned that Labor Board awards constitute wages of their equivalent, but beneficiaries of these awards rarely can comply with the three-months time limitation for wage priority because of the lag occasioned by Labor Board proceedings to establish the unlawfulness of their discharge by the employer. If they could do so, their claims would doubtless take the second priority and be paid in preference to everything except administration expenses.

The judgment below denies these claims second priority but admits them to the fifth class. Ahead of them, in the fourth class, are all taxes owing to the United States and to any state or subdivision, and this obviously is the priority intended to protect the federal revenues. Only after all revenue requirements are thus satisfied does the judgment below allow these claims to be paid. The Bankruptcy Act in this fifth category certainly contemplates a class of Government claims not arising out of taxation. It does not seem to me inappropriate to consider the relation of the Government to the wronged laborer established by the Labor Relations Act as analogous to the Government's wardship toward Indians, found to warrant invocation of its priority in Bramwell v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 269 U.S. 483, 46 S.Ct. 176, 70 L.Ed. 368. The slogan 'equality of distribution' can have little meaning when we are considering a section of a statute designed to establish inequality by a series of priorities. To protect the bankrupt's estate against inequalities equalities caused by the unlawful preferences attempted by the bankrupt is one thing; to invoke such a 'theme' to level out priorities created by statute is another.

While the legislation is not as complete or clear as one would like, supplying the rule for conflicts unanticipated by Congress is a large part of our work and I think the courts below have arrived at a practical solution of this question that accomplishes the purposes both of the Bankruptcy Act and the National Labor Relations Act. I would therefore affirm.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).