The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to consider whether virtually the entire construction industry in an area can be penalized for a discriminatory hiring hall operated by a single union.
Fourteen hundred construction contractors from eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware asked the justices to review a lower court decision that made them and the union responsible for the discrimination, even though it was the union hiring hall alone that decided who would work.
The case could have a major impact on both employment discrimination and labor relations in any situation where an employer delegates hiring responsibility, as many industries do.
Yesterday's case stemmed from the hiring practices of Local 524 of the Operating Engineers Union, whose hiring hall exclusively decides who will operate heavy equipment for all of the region's unionized contractors. When blacks sued for discrimination in 1971, the industry argued that since the union did all the hiring, the union should bear all responsibility for whatever discrimination occurred.
The blacks contended that the employers were equally liable because they participated in the discrimination by agreeing in collective bargaining to the exclusive hiring hall powers of the union.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a tie vote, agreed with the blacks in 1978 when it upheld a district court's finding of discrimination. It also upheld the imposition of an affirmative action program on the entire industry and exposed all the contractors to an award of costs for legal fees and possible future contempt action for violations of the district court order. A potentially huge back pay award is still being debated in the lower courts.
The construction industry told the Supreme Court that the ruling, if allowed to stand, could disrupt the hiring hall system used throughout the country and "substantially harm" the industry financially.
In other action yesterday:
The court said it would consider whether cable television companies must pay for the right to lay cables across private property. Jean Loretto, a Manhattan apartment house owner, contended that the Teleprompter Corp. should pay her a fee for installing equipment on top of her building in order to provide service to nearby residents.
A New York state law, however, frees cable companies of the need to make anything more than a nominal payment on the grounds that cable television, like telephone service, is a "vital" communications business that benefits the general public.
That, Loretto argues, treats her building as if it were a "public highway." Loretto has asked the court to strike down the New York law because it allows an "invasion" of her property without the compensation required by the Constitution.
A Supreme Court opinion siding with Loretto could make cable installation significantly more expensive for the companies.
The court agreed to review a death penalty case from Florida raising the question of whether an accomplice to a murder, who didn't actually pull the trigger and never intended that there be a killing, can be sentenced to die.
The case involves the murder of an elderly Hardee County, Fla., couple during a robbery at their rural home. Earl Enmund accompanied his companions to the home to rob the couple. While he was waiting in the getaway car, Eunice Kersey, 74, attempted to resist; she and her husband were shot to death.
Enmund did not witness or participate in the shooting, and prosecutors did not allege that he or the others went to the home with the intent to kill. A jury sentenced him to death anyway under a "felony murder" law.
Enmund's lawyers have asked the court to ban the death penalty in cases where there is no showing of intent to kill on the part of a defendant who did not do the killing.
* The court agreed to consider whether tenants in a Louisville public housing project have to be informed in person of a landlord's court action against them before being evicted or whether it is sufficient to post a notice on their doors.
The case, Lendsey vs. Joseph Green and Unknown Deputy Sheriffs, questions the practice of sheriffs of posting a court notice when they cannot find the recipient.
* The court let stand a ruling that Medicare does not have to pay hospitals for televisions and telephones automatically provided to Medicare patients along with other patients. Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas argued that the patients have a "right" to talk to relatives and friends and to receive news and religious programming.
* In an unsigned opinion, the court reemphasized that prison inmates must go to state courts with efforts to gain their freedom before going to federal courts.
Isadore Serrano, convicted of murder in Indiana, tried to have his conviction nullified by the U.S. courts on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance from his lawyer. He had not made that argument in the state courts. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Serrano, saying that "in the interest of judicial economy," there was no reason to await state court consideration. The justices, with Thurgood Marshall dissenting, reversed the appeals court.