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Schlenk v. Lehigh Valley Railroad Co.

Decided: December 6, 1948.


On appeal from the former Court of Chancery.

For reversal: Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Case, Heher, Wachenfeld, Burling, and Ackerson. For affirmance: None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Vanderbilt, C.J.


In the course of his employment as a yard foreman in the Newark railroad yard of the defendant on July 10, 1947, complainant became angry at the lack of information as to the placing of a car in making up a train. Without provocation he called the clerk, who he thought should be able to give him the information, an ugly appellation, which at least since the days of "The Virginian" has been thought to constitute fighting words, unless said with a smile, which was entirely lacking here. On the contrary, according to a fellow trainman and the fireman on the engine, the complainant grabbed the clerk, pinned his arms to his sides, threw him on the ground and rubbed his face in the cinders, with the result, according to the yardmaster, that the right side of his face was all covered with cinders and dirt. The two fellow employees further testified that after the clerk got up from the ground the complainant called after him that, "If you don't keep your mouth shut, I will kill you," or words to that effect.

As a result the complainant was ordered to appear before the trainmaster the following morning for a hearing at which he was found guilty of violating Rule 801 of the defendant's rules and regulations, which, among other things, prohibited "altercations with patrons or other employees while on duty or while on company property." He was thereupon discharged. This was not the complainant's first offense, for in the twelve and a half years of his employment by the defendant out of his nearly 38 years of experience he had twice before been discharged, once for the use of intoxicants and once for violation of company rules as to the proper methods of performing work to avoid accidents. He had also been suspended before for another altercation with a fellow employee.

Complainant filed a bill in Chancery to restore him to his former position on the ground that he had not been accorded

a fair trial as required by the working agreement between the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the defendant. The learned Vice Chancellor found that the defendant had acted with undue haste and on January 6, 1948, ordered the complainant reinstated. No appeal was taken from this decree.

On the instruction of the defendant the complainant presented himself for a medical examination on January 14th and was found physically fit by the defendant's physician. On January 15th he reported to the trainmaster's office and when asked if he desired to return to work that day, stated that he had a "few things to take care of" and as soon as he had them "straightened out I would report to work." Following his departure that day, the trainmaster sent him a letter by registered mail requesting him to appear at the trainmaster's office on January 23rd for an investigation with respect to the altercation of July 10th. The complainant returned to work on January 19th and on January 21st he applied to the Court of Chancery for temporary restraint against the hearing scheduled for January 23rd and obtained the relief sought. On February 17th he filed a supplemental bill of complaint, alleging prejudice against him and his consequent inability to obtain a fair trial from the defendant and seeking a determination in the Court of Chancery of the merits of the charge against him and of the discipline to be imposed, together with a permanent restraint against a trial of the charge by the defendant. The defendant denied not only the allegations of the supplemental bill but also the jurisdiction of the court to try the complainant and to determine what discipline should be imposed on the complainant.

At the final hearing the complainant adduced testimony seeking to show that during the period from his reemployment in January the general manager of the defendant and the trainmaster were no longer friendly and sociable to complainant, that the trainmaster refused to have direct relations with him, and also that the yardmaster to whom the altercation had been first reported had refused to call off the

first hearing in July, 1947, although the assaulted clerk had requested him to do so at that time.

The learned Vice Chancellor found that there was substance to the contention that the complainant could not receive a fair and impartial hearing from the defendant. On the merits of the charge he determined that the complainant was guilty of violating Rule 801, but that punishment by dismissal was unduly severe and that the loss by the complainant of his wages from July, 1947, to the date of his reinstatement in January, 1948, was "ample punishment." A final decree was entered on July 23, 1948, incorporating these conclusions and containing a permanent restraint against a retrial of the charge by the defendant. From this decree the defendant appeals.

Equity has no inherent jurisdiction over the relation of employer and employee. Each is free, in the absence of contract or statute, to discontinue the relation at will, with or without cause. Where a contract exists, however, equity has the power, as it did here, to protect the complainant from the consequences of a hasty trial without being represented, in violation of the contractual provisions for "a fair hearing and investigation" and appropriate representation thereat. In such circumstances damages in a suit at law would be an inadequate remedy for the complainant's loss of position, pension and retirement rights. The decree of January 6, 1948, which was not appealed from, is unquestionably sound. It is quite a different matter, however, for equity to adjudge in advance of a hearing of a complaint by the defendant that the complainant, though found guilty ...

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