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Johnston v. Rhode Island Council 94

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 10, 2017

Town of Johnston
v.
Rhode Island Council 94, AFSCME, Local 1491, by and through its President, Louis M. Prata.

         Providence County Superior Court PM 15-1845 Jeffrey A. Lanphear Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: William J. Conley, Jr., Esq. Gina Lemay, Esq.

          For Defendant: Carly Beauvais Iafrate, Esq. Gerard P. Cobleigh, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Robinson, Flaherty, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice

         The Town of Johnston (the town), appeals from a Superior Court judgment denying both its motion to stay implementation of an arbitration award and its motion to vacate said award, and granting the Council 94, AFSCME, Local 1491's (the union) motion to confirm the arbitration award. This dispute arose after the Johnston Board of Canvassers (the board) unanimously voted to eliminate a clerical position held by Colleen Crowley. The union thereafter filed grievances with the town on Crowley's behalf as required under the terms of the then-operative collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) seeking to invoke Crowley's alleged "bumping rights."[1] After the town denied the union's claims, the union filed a demand for arbitration. The appointed arbitrator found in the union's favor, and the Superior Court confirmed the arbitration award. The sole issue on appeal is whether the Superior Court erred in confirming the arbitrator's finding that Crowley's dispute with the town was arbitrable.

         This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Procedural History

         The pertinent facts in this case are not in dispute. On July 18, 2005, Crowley was appointed to a "Clerk I" position with the board. During Crowley's term of employment, "the parties followed the terms and conditions of the [CBA] then in effect * * * including for salary and benefits, which was uniform with all other [t]own employees working in the position of Clerk." Crowley paid union dues while she worked for the board, and she was listed on the town's seniority list along with her date of hire.[2] In 2010, Crowley moved to the classification and pay scale of "Clerk II."

         In 2014, after she had been employed by the board for approximately nine years, the board unanimously voted to eliminate Crowley's position and, as a result, her employment was terminated. At a public hearing on June 11, where her clerical position was considered and ultimately eliminated, the board expressed that a decrease in funding was the basis for its decision to eliminate the least senior full-time position. Specifically, the minutes of this meeting included the board's explanation that "the [c]ouncil [had] recently adopted its budget ordinance and the ordinance reduced the funding to the [b]oard * * *."

         The next day, the union wrote to the town seeking to assert Crowley's "bumping rights" pursuant to Articles 10.8 and 10.6 of the CBA. In response, the town indicated to the union, in a letter dated June 19, 2014, that it did not consider Crowley to be a town employee covered by the CBA. Specifically, the town noted that, unlike the other employees with "bumping rights" who had been appointed by the mayor or town council, Crowley "was hired under the statutory authority of the [board] and not the [t]own [a]dministration." The union thereafter filed grievances in June and July 2014, all of which were denied at their respective stages. On or about August 14, 2014, the union filed a demand for arbitration.

         An arbitration hearing was held on January 21, 2015, and the arbitrator agreed to bifurcate the arbitrability issue from the merits of Crowley's claim. The town maintained that Crowley's grievance was not arbitrable because, having been appointed by the board, Crowley was not a member of the bargaining unit covered by the CBA. The union's position, with which the arbitrator ultimately agreed, was that Crowley was a member of the bargaining unit and entitled to all privileges of membership. The arbitrator, after citing to applicable law and reviewing the record and arguments presented by both sides, found that "[t]he [t]own [had] treated [b]oard employees as members of the bargaining unit since at least 1999[.]" He also noted that the town's denial of Crowley's bumping rights on the basis that she may not have been hired off the "civil service list" as required for such positions, "[did] not remove [Crowley] from the bargaining unit nor [did] it remove this grievance from arbitration, under the circumstances of this case." The arbitrator found that Crowley was a "classified employee" of the town and concluded that the matter was therefore substantively arbitrable.

         The town filed a miscellaneous petition in Superior Court seeking to vacate the arbitration award and to stay its implementation. The union filed an answer to the petition and a motion to confirm the award, to which the town objected. After a hearing on the matter, the Superior Court issued a written decision confirming the award. In his decision, the hearing justice concluded that "the current dispute [was] arbitrable because * * * Crowley [was] a municipal employee in the [t]own * * * and therefore, an employee that falls under the provisions of the CBA." The hearing justice ruled that the arbitrator's decision ...


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