The Third Circuit Overrules a Precedent “On an Important Question of Maritime Law”

Joyce v. Maersk Line Ltd., 876 F.3d 502 (3d Cir. 2017).  Today’s decision by Judge Jordan for a unanimous en banc court began with a pun and continued as follows: “Today we stop swimming against the tide of opinion on an important question of maritime law.  Following the lead of several of our sister circuits, we now hold that a union contract freely entered by a seafarer– a contract that includes rates of maintenance, cure, and and unearned wages– will not be reviewed piecemeal by courts unless there is evidence of unfairness in the collective bargaining process.  In so holding, we overrule our decision in Barnes v. Andover Co., L.P., 900 F.2d 630 (3d Cir. 1990).”  The court applied de novo review to overturn a summary judgment in favor of defendant.

The substance of the opinion is doubtless important for maritime practitioners and seafarers.  For the rest of us, the opinion gives hope that flawed decisions of the Third Circuit can later be overruled, and the decision illuminates some of the considerations that might lead the court to overrule itself.

In reconsidering Barnes, itself a 2-1 decision, Judge Jordan quoted the court’s Internal Operating Procedure 9.1, which states the “tradition of this court that the holding of a panel in a precedential opinion is binding on subsequent panels.”  The court, he said, does not “overturn our precedents lightly.”  Instead, the court will do that only “on a rare occasion,” though there is also a recognition that “stare decisis is not an inexorable command.”

While the court decides cases based on its own judgment, “not on the views of other jurisdictions,” where one of its opinions is the subject of “universal disapproval” by other jurisdictions, the court may consider whether the reasoning of those other courts is persuasive.  Here, Barnes itself departed from the position of three other Circuits, and in the years since Barnes, “every other circuit to consider the question has, in turn, rejected Barnes and adopted the majority position.”

Barnes was thus left “standing alone” among the Circuits, which suggested to the court that a reevaluation was in order.  The court found the reasoning of other Circuits to be persuasive, resulting in overruling of Barnes.  This was, as Judge Jordan stated in conclusion, “the rare case in which we overrule our own precedent.”



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