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Nugent v. State of Rhode Island Public Defender's Office

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 6, 2018

Dolores Nugent
v.
State of Rhode Island Public Defender's Office.

          Providence County Superior PC 15-832 Court Associate Justice Richard A. Licht

          For Plaintiff: Richard J. Savage, Esq.

          For Defendant: Adam J. Sholes, Esq. Assistant Attorney General

          Jessica D. Rider, Esq. Special Assistant Attorney General

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

          OPINION

          PAUL A. SUTTELL CHIEF JUSTICE.

         The plaintiff, Dolores Nugent (Nugent), appeals from a Superior Court judgment granting a motion brought by the defendant, the State of Rhode Island Public Defender's Office (Public Defender's Office), for judgment on the pleadings. This matter 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 we proceed to decide the appeal at this time. For the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the Superior Court judgment.

         I

         Facts and Procedural History

         A

         Nugent's Termination and Subsequent Arbitration Proceeding

         Nugent had been an employee of the Public Defender's Office for nineteen years. In July 2013, Nugent learned that her nephew had been murdered. During his arraignment, the Public Defender's Office represented the individual accused of murdering her nephew. Nugent attended the arraignment and later asked an employee at the Public Defender's Office to see the paperwork for the case. After Nugent was denied access to the paperwork, the same employee observed Nugent speaking on her cell phone and allegedly informing an unknown third party that she should be able to gain access to the case documents the following day. By a letter dated August 29, 2013, the Public Defender's Office terminated Nugent's employment.

         In response to Nugent's termination, the Rhode Island Laborers' District Council, on behalf of Local Union 808, LIUNA (union), filed a grievance claiming that Nugent was terminated without just cause. The grievance was not resolved and the matter proceeded to arbitration. After hearing testimony from Nugent and several employees of the Public Defender's Office, the arbitrator determined that "given the egregiousness of [Nugent's] misconduct * * * and considering as well her prior record of discipline, " the Public Defender's Office "acted with just cause when it terminated [Nugent's] employment."

         B

         Nugent I

         On June 27, 2014, Nugent filed a complaint in Superior Court to "appeal" the arbitration decision (Nugent I). She alleged that "the [a]rbitrator[] was arbitrary and capricious, based on facts, constituting clear error of law, against a greater weight of evidence presented, and the intent of the mandates and guidelines, protecting the confidentiality of Public Defender records, and conflicts of interest." Nugent sought reversal of the arbitration decision and reinstatement to her previous employment at the Public Defender's Office. In its answer, the Public Defender's Office argued, relying on DiGuilio v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 819 A.2d 1271 (R.I. 2003), that Nugent lacked standing to bring the action in her individual capacity without first making a showing that her union violated its duty of fair representation. See DiGuilio, 819 A.2d at 1273. The Public Defender's Office also moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure and argued, in part, that Nugent lacked standing to seek judicial review of the arbitration award. Specifically, the Public Defender's Office argued that, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, only the union or the Public Defender's Office-the parties to that agreement-could bring the grievance to arbitration and subsequently seek judicial review of the arbitration award under G.L. 1956 § 28-9-18. The Public Defender's Office, citing again to DiGuilio, argued that Nugent lacked standing because she did not put forth any evidence that the union breached its duty of fair representation and, consequently, she was barred from challenging the arbitration award on her own and without representation by the union. DiGuilio, 819 A.2d at 1273.

         After a December 9, 2014 hearing on defendant's Rule 12(c) motion, the hearing justice issued a bench decision granting the motion. We note that no transcript was ordered for this hearing. On December 18, ...


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