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Coppage v. Kansas

Employers' Rights Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the judgment of the lower courts. The majority did not find any element of pressure or duress in the appellant's actions. The justices considered Coppage's act an appropriate exercise of employer rights under Fourteenth Amendment provisions regarding "freedom of contract." They found that Hedges was not coerced when he was asked to sign a contract containing provisions to which he was not willing to accede. The Court believed he had opportunity to decide and choose whether to withdraw from membership in his union or remain in the service of his employer. The Court reasoned that requirements presented to Hedges by the representative of the railway company (Coppage) were not unconstitutional and that no coercion was evident because Hedges had opportunity to "exercise a voluntary choice."

In a comparable, related case, Adair v. United States (1908), a yellow dog contract was held as being constitutionally legal under what the justices viewed as being an issue of "freedom of contract" despite legislation passed by Congress which were aimed at prohibition of such practices. Justice Pitney, in writing for the majority, maintained that

under constitutional freedom of contract, whatever either party has the right to treat as sufficient ground for terminating the employment, where there is no stipulation on the subject, he has the right to provide against by insisting that a stipulation respecting it shall be a sine qua non of the inception of the employment, or of its continuance if it be terminable at will.

The Court reasoned that, as in Adair, there had to be an equal balance between employer and employee rights. As in Adair, justices chose to privilege an employer's property rights and due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. The Court rationalized that if it was unconstitutional for the government "to deprive an employer of liberty and property for threatening an employee with loss of employment, or discriminating him (the employee) because of his membership in a labor organization," then it was equally illegal for states to "similarly punish an employer for requiring his employee, as a condition of securing or retaining employment, to agree not to become or remain a member of such an organization while so employed." (Clearly, the 1915 Court, under Chief Justice White, was at odds with the slow, eventual movement of legislators towards legislation which would eventually proscribe yellow dog contracts.)

Concluding that the notion of an employer's right to "freedom of contract" was sufficient to justify Coppage's actions (on behalf of his company), the majority felt that Kansas's yellow dog legislation was "arbitrary" and infringed on the equal rights of companies. The law was an inappropriate "exercise of the police power of the state." The justices did not feel that the appellant had exercised compulsory influence and thus, his actions did not represent a violation of law. The justices for the majority did not deny that states were granted the right to exercise police power to prohibit potential coercive requirements in contracts between employers and employees. But they could not accept the findings of lower courts that (as an authorized representative of his company) Coppage's action should be treated as criminal and punishable when he offered Hedges, without "undue influence," an option to remain in the employ of Frisco Lines or leave, and Coppage left Hedges free to make a decision.

The Court reasoned that the Kansas statute prohibiting yellow dog contracts represented an unfair requirement on employers when negotiating a contract with employees. Due process provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment safeguarded "liberty," "property", and "freedom of contracting." Justices reasoned that "inequalities of fortune" were legal and recognizable as a natural process of negotiating and making contracts. Thus, the Court viewed Kansas law as an indirect attempt to overthrow such inherent inequities without recognizing the existence of an employer's constitutional guarantees that safeguarded company interests.

The majority justices posited that the Kansas law was not properly legislated because it infringed on an employer's right to make contracts favoring the interests of the employer's company. The Court believed Kansas statute outlawed the "exercise of personal liberty and property rights" and represented an inappropriate application of the state's police power. Further, under the Fourteenth Amendment, an employer's contracting rights were abridged because the statute denied an employer the opportunity to decide whether membership in a labor organization was an acceptable condition of employment. Characterizing the relationship between employer and employee as a "voluntary relationship," the Court found inappropriate legislation that characterized as criminal conduct an employer's prescription of terms under which an employee could continue relations with his employee.

The justices pointed out that freedom of choice was equal for both parties (for the employer to employ a laborer who met its needs, and for the laborer to choose whether to relinquish union membership in order to remain employed.) Offering an employee such an option could not be characterized as deprivation of any constitutional freedom. Both parties were free to "say no" if not satisfied with terms of employment; thus, as a part of the process of equal bargaining, conditions of employment did not have to be regarded as unlawful or coercive if an employer's requirements legitimately exercised his right to "freedom of contract." The majority justices were persistent and clear that no "legislative restrictions" were legitimate if they obstructed the exercise of rights under "freedom of contract," therefore the Kansas statute was illogical. Consequently, the jailing of Coppage was improper when his conduct did not exceed legal limits.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Coppage v. Kansas - Significance, Employers' Rights Upheld, Dissent Over "freedom Of Contract", Impact, Yellow-dog Contracts