GIRARD BOUCHARD, in his capacity as President of the Board of Directors of the Central Coventry Fire District, Plaintiff,
CENTRAL COVENTRY FIRE DISTRICT, Defendant.
William J. Conley, Jr., Esq.
Michael P. Robinson, Esq.; David M. D'Agostino, Esq.;
Elizabeth A. Wiens, Esq. For Defendant:
Central Coventry Fire District (CCFD) asks this Court to make
declarations as to CCFD's rights under certain collective
bargaining agreements (CBAs) and whether taxes may be levied
against the residents of the fire district to fund validly
executed CBAs. CCFD argues that the CBAs are not binding on
CCFD and that the taxpayers of the fire district are not
required to fund the CBAs, either through a levy of taxes or
by a line item in the annual budget. The firefighters of CCFD
(the Firefighters), through their union, Local 3372 (the
Union), object to CCFD's requested declarations,
maintaining that the CBAs are valid and the taxpayers are
obligated to fund said CBAs. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L.
1956 §§ 8-2-13 and 9-30-1.
Facts and Travel
created by legislative charter in 1959, is a
quasi-governmental entity that provides fire suppression and
emergency services to inhabitants of Coventry who reside
within its designated fire district. First Am. Compl. ¶
1. In 2012, Girard Bouchard (Bouchard), the then-president of
CCFD's Board of Directors (the Board), recognized that
CCFD faced a financial crisis and filed a petition for
receivership on October 15, 2012. See id. at ¶
9. The next day, the Court appointed a temporary Special
Master, who was subsequently affirmed as permanent Special
Master on November 13, 2012 pursuant to an "Order
Appointing Permanent Special Master" (the Order) issued
by the Court. Id. at ¶ 10. The Order imposed a
stay upon all of CCFD's creditors, prevented the filing
of new lawsuits, the continuation of existing lawsuits, or
any collection activities against CCFD. See First
Am. Compl., Ex. 3, ¶ 13.
receivership proceeding moved forward until it was halted in
May 2014 when the General Assembly amended the Fiscal
Stability Act, G.L. 1956 §§ 45-9-1 et
seq., to include fire districts (the Amendment). The
Amendment prevented CCFD from "be[ing] placed into, or
made subject to, either voluntarily or involuntarily, a state
judicial receivership proceeding." Sec. 45-9-13.
However, under the Fiscal Stability Act, the Director of
Revenue (DOR) had the ability to appoint a fiscal overseer or
receiver to an insolvent fire district. See
§§ 45-9-3, 45-9-7, 45-9-8. The DOR exercised such
right under the Fiscal Stability Act and appointed Steven P.
Hartford, Esq. receiver of CCFD (Receiver Hartford). First
Am. Compl. ¶ 14. Subsequently, on December 23, 2014,
Receiver Hartford filed a Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Petition (the
Bankruptcy Petition), placing CCFD into bankruptcy.
Id. at ¶ 15. Shortly thereafter, on or about
January 5, 2015, Mark A. Pfeiffer (Receiver Pfeiffer) was
appointed successor receiver for CCFD. See id. at
Bankruptcy Court, Receiver Pfeiffer filed a motion to reject
(Motion to Reject) the existing collective bargaining
agreement between CCFD and the Union. Id. at ¶
17. Prior to the hearing on the Motion to Reject, the
Receiver and Union negotiated two CBAs: (1) CCFD CBA FY 2015
(2015 CBA), and (2) CCFD CBA FY 2015-2020 (2015-2020 CBA).
See id. at ¶ 18; see also First Am.
Compl., Exs. 5, 6. The 2015 CBA was to be effective from
April 19, 2015 through August 31, 2015, and the 2015-2020 CBA
was to be effective from September 1, 2015 through August 31,
2020. See First Am. Compl. ¶ 18;
see also First Am. Compl., Exs. 5, 6. Receiver
Pfeiffer filed a motion to approve the 2015 CBA and the
2015-2020 CBA, but the Bankruptcy Court scheduled the
approval of the two CBAs contemporaneous with approval and
confirmation of the five-year plan of adjustment (the
Five-Year Plan). However, the Five-Year Plan was never
approved or confirmed because on September 17, 2015, the DOR
submitted a letter to Receiver Pfeiffer informing him that
the receivership was to terminate on September 30, 2015.
See First Am. Compl., Ex. 7. Accordingly, on
September 18, 2015, Receiver Pfeiffer filed a motion to
dismiss the Bankruptcy Petition, which was granted.
October 9, 2015, CCFD filed a motion to amend its petition
for receivership to include three counts for declaratory
relief. The three counts posed the following questions: (1)
What is the obligation of the Board of Directors as to the
terms of either of the two CBAs negotiated between the Union
and Receiver Pfeiffer? (2) Must the taxpayers of CCFD's
district fund, through the raising of taxes, CBAs entered
into by the Board? and (3) Do the taxpayers of CCFD's
district have a right, pursuant to the Charter, to determine
the method of how fire suppression and emergency services are
provided by CCFD?
the matter's return to the Superior Court, this Court was
tasked with determining whether any orders or motions-pending
or otherwise-made or filed prior to the Amendment and removal
to the Bankruptcy Court were valid or enforceable. In
interpreting the Fiscal Stability Act, this Court found the
statute to be a limitation on the Superior Court's
jurisdiction, excluding the application of receivership laws
to fire districts. Bouchard v. Cent. Coventry Fire
Dist., No. PC20135097, 2015 WL 7871277, at *3 (R.I.
Super. Nov. 25, 2015). However, this Court held that such
exclusion of receivership laws would not prevent the matter
from moving forward under the Court's other forms of
jurisdiction-either at law or in equity-pursuant to §
8-2-13 or § 8-2-14. Id. at *6.
Court held a hearing on CCFD's declaratory judgment
action on March 14, 2016, during which counsel for CCFD and
the Union presented arguments on the aforementioned three
questions. The Court reserved judgment at the conclusion of
the hearing. Subsequently, the parties requested that the
Court not issue a Decision on this matter, pending further
negotiations between the parties. However, in December 2016,
the parties asked that this Court issue a Decision on the
requested declarations. The Court has since issued a Bench
Decision, declining to declare the rights of the taxpayers
under the Charter on standing grounds.
Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, §§ 9-30-1 et
seq., grants a court the power to "declare rights,
status, and other legal relations" of litigants. Sec.
"[a]ny person interested under a deed, will, written
contract, or other writings constituting a contract . . . may
have determined any question of construction or validity
arising under the instrument . . . and obtain a declaration
of rights, status, or other legal relations thereunder."
declaratory judgment "is neither an action at law nor a
suit in equity but a novel statutory proceeding."
Newport Amusement Co. v. Maher, 92 R.I. 51, 53, 166
A.2d 216, 217 (1960). The purpose and intention of a
declaratory judgment action is to "allow the trial
justice to facilitate the termination of controversies."
Bradford Assocs. v. R.I. Div. of Purchases, 772 A.2d
485, 489 (R.I. 2001). Accordingly, the Uniform Declaratory
Judgments Act "confers broad discretion upon the trial
justice as to whether he or she should grant declaratory
relief." Cruz v. Wausau Ins., 866 A.2d
1237, 1240 (R.I. 2005); see also § 9-30-6;
Woonsocket Teachers' Guild Local Union 951,
AFT v. Woonsocket Sch. Comm., 694 A.2d 727, 729 (R.I.
1997); Lombardi v. Goodyear Loan Co., 549
A.2d 1025, 1027 (R.I. 1988). Despite such grant of
discretion, our Supreme Court has cautioned that "[a]
declaratory-judgment action may not be used 'for the
determination of abstract questions or the rendering of
advisory opinions, ' nor does it 'license litigants
to fish in judicial ponds for legal advice.'"
Sullivan v. Chafee, 703 A.2d 748, 751 (R.I. 1997)
(first quoting Lamb v. Perry, 101 R.I. 538, 542, 225
A.2d 521, 523 (1967); next quoting Goodyear Loan Co. v.
Little, 107 R.I. 629, 631, 269 A.2d 542, 543 (1970)).
the CBAs are Valid
Board and CCFD first ask this Court to declare the rights,
duties, status and obligations of the Board under the two
CBAs negotiated by Receiver Pfeiffer and the Union.
Specifically, CCFD requests a declaration that the Board is
not required to comply with the terms of either of the CBAs
negotiated and executed between Receiver Pfeiffer and the
Union because they are both void by operation of law. In
support, CCFD argues that although Receiver Pfeiffer entered
into the two CBAs under the aegis of authority granted to him
under the Fiscal Stability Act, the requirements under §
45-9-9 were not met. In response, the Union contends that the
negotiated and executed CBAs are valid and binding on the
Board for several reasons: (1) Receiver Pfeiffer entered into
the CBAs under a valid grant of statutory authority;
(2)Receiver Pfeiffer and Director Sullivan complied with the
requirements of § 45-9-9; and (3)the CBAs did not need
to be approved by the Bankruptcy Court.
of Receiver Pfeiffer under the ...