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Town of Cumberland v. Cumberland Town Employees Union

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

May 14, 2018

Town of Cumberland
v.
Cumberland Town Employees Union et al.

         Providence County Superior Court Richard A. Licht Associate Justice

          For Plaintiff: Dylan B. Conley, Esq.

          For Defendants: Elizabeth A. Wiens, Esq. Marc B. Gursky, Esq.

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

          OPINION

          Gilbert V. Indeglia, Associate Justice

         Before the Court is an appeal from a Providence County Superior Court hearing justice's decision granting a motion to vacate an arbitration award in favor of the defendants, the Cumberland Town Employees Union and Norman Tremblay (Tremblay) (collectively, the union), brought by the plaintiff, the Town of Cumberland (the town), and denying the union's cross-petition to confirm the same.[1] This matter came before the Supreme Court on March 8, 2018, 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 arguments set forth in the parties' memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined below, the Superior Court judgment in favor of the town is vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to confirm the arbitration award.

         I

         Facts[2] and Travel

         Tremblay was employed by the town's highway department as a light equipment operator for nearly thirteen years. At all relevant times, a collective bargaining agreement (the CBA) entered into between the town and the union governed his employment. On August 5, 2014, Tremblay "rolled" his ankle at work, tearing tendons and ligaments. As a result, he could not work, and he required surgery to repair the damage before he could resume his position. After encountering numerous health insurance delays, on June 24, 2015, Tremblay underwent his long-awaited surgery, but did not return to work while he was recovering.

         During his absence, Tremblay remained a town employee, continuing to pay his union dues and contributing toward his health insurance benefits. Throughout that time, he maintained regular contact with the union, as well as with the town by way of its human resources department. At no point did the town inform Tremblay that he should request a leave of absence, and thus he did not do so.

         On November 10, 2015, Tremblay received a letter from the town's human resources department notifying him that his right to seek reinstatement to his position was terminated pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 28-33-47(c)(1)(vi)[3] of the Workers' Compensation Act (the WCA). In support of that notice of termination, the town relied on the fact that a period in excess of one year had elapsed since his injury.

         Three days after Tremblay received the letter, the union filed a grievance on his behalf, arguing that he had been terminated without just cause, in violation of Article 13.1 of the CBA.[4]His grievance was held in abeyance until the conclusion of a separate workers' compensation suit. Once that suit resolved, Tremblay followed the procedure for filing a grievance dictated in Article 4 of the CBA;[5] based on that article, he brought his grievance first to the town's human resources department and then to the mayor. Each denied his grievance. Dissatisfied, the union filed an arbitration demand on Tremblay's behalf pursuant to Article 4.4 of the CBA.[6] In the interim, on May 4, 2016, Tremblay was formally cleared to return to work.

         An arbitrator conducted a hearing regarding Tremblay's grievance on August 11, 2016, framing the relevant issues as (1) whether the grievance should be sustained; and (2) if so, what should be the appropriate remedy? The town argued primarily that the grievance was not arbitrable because § 28-33-47(d) grants the Workers' Compensation Court exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes. Further, the town maintained that, per the WCA, Tremblay had lost his right to reinstatement as a matter of law when his absence exceeded one year, thus he no longer had an arbitrable claim for reinstatement. It continued that because "the termination actually occurred by operation of law and not by action of the [t]own, * * * Tremblay's quarrel is with the law, not the [t]own." Based on that contention, the town asserted that, to dispute his termination, Tremblay must challenge § 28-33-47(c)(1)(vi) in Workers' Compensation Court to restore his reinstatement right because, absent that right, there was no contract right upon which the town could infringe.

         The union countered that the town violated the CBA by terminating Tremblay without just cause because Article 20.2 of the CBA[7] contemplated a leave of absence of up to two years.[8]The union avowed that the WCA "specifically preserves superior contractual rights, and leaves intact contractual claims to enforce those right[s]." Moreover, the union asserted that, while the WCA grants a one-year reinstatement right, "it does not trump the more generous provision of the CBA[, ]" citing to § 28-33-47(b) of the WCA in support of that principle.[9]

         In a written decision on December 13, 2016, the arbitrator concluded that Tremblay's grievance was arbitrable. His decision explained that the grievance had merit because "[b]efore November 10 there [was] no indication that the [t]own did not consider Tremblay covered by the [CBA] and entitled to the protections of the [CBA]." He opined that Tremblay was still entitled to the benefits that the CBA afforded him because he "never ceased to be regarded as an employee and was not seeking reinstatement as contemplated by the statute." In closing, he directed the town to reinstate Tremblay with full back pay and without the loss of benefits.

         In Providence County Superior Court, the town petitioned to stay and to vacate the arbitration award, and the union filed a cross-petition to confirm and to enforce the same. On January 31, 2017, a Superior Court hearing justice heard argument on the motions. On February 23, 2017, he issued a written decision granting the town's motion to vacate the award, explicating that the language of the statute clearly and unambiguously gave the Workers' Compensation Court exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes. He further explained that the CBA's seniority provision protected only an injured worker's right to return to the same level of seniority and did not serve as authority whereby the CBA could supersede the WCA's jurisdictional grant. The union timely appealed to this Court.

         II

         Standard of Review

         Although "judicial authority to review or to vacate an arbitration award is limited, [this Court] must * * * [vacate] the award * * * [when] the arbitrator or arbitrators exceed * * * their powers." State v. Rhode Island Alliance of Social Services Employees, Local 580, SEIU, 747 A.2d 465, 468 (R.I. 2000) (quoting Rhode Island Council 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. State, 714 A.2d 584, 587-88 (R.I. 1998)). "One sure way for an arbitrator to exceed his or her powers is to arbitrate a dispute that is not arbitrable in the first place." Id. In analyzing whether an issue is arbitrable, "[a] more searching standard of judicial review governs * * * than our limited review of the substantive arbitration award." State Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 866 A.2d 1241, 1247 (R.I. 2005). Arbitrability is a question of law that we review de novo. Id.

         In cases where arbitrability precipitates a question of statutory interpretation, it is also relevant to note that "when a statutory section is clear and unambiguous, we apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute and we need not delve into any further statutory interpretation." Grasso v. Raimondo, 177 A.3d 482, 489 (R.I. 2018).

         III

         Discussion

         In properly focusing our inquiry, we must carefully narrow the issue that is before us. To do so, we turn to the salient ...


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