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Town of East Greenwich v. East Greenwich Fire Fighters Association Local 3328

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Kent

August 23, 2018

TOWN OF EAST GREENWICH, RHODE ISLAND, Plaintiff,
v.
EAST GREENWICH FIRE FIGHTERS ASSOCIATION LOCAL 3328, I.A.F.F., AFL-CIO, by and through, WILLIAM PERRY, in his official capacity as President of the EAST GREENWICH FIRE FIGHTERS ASSOCIATION LOCAL 3328, I.A.F.F., AFL-CIO, and MATT HOWARD, in his official capacity as Secretary of the EAST GREENWICH FIRE FIGHTERS ASSOCIATION LOCAL 3328, I.A.F.F., AFL-CIO, Defendants.

          For Plaintiff: Timothy C. Cavazza, Esq.; David M. D'Agostino, Esq.

          For Defendant: Elizabeth A. Wiens, Esq. Jeffrey W. Kasle, Esq. (counsel for Intervenor)

          DECISION

          MCGUIRL, J.

         Plaintiff Town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island (Plaintiff or the Town) filed a Complaint for declaratory relief, as well as a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings against Defendant East Greenwich Fire Fighters Association Local 3328, I.A.F.F., AFL-CIO (the Union) requesting that this Court declare-pursuant to its authority under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act-that the Town has a "non-delegable management right" to reorganize the structure of the East Greenwich Fire Department (EGFD) from its existing four platoon structure to a three platoon structure. In its Complaint, Plaintiff urges this Court to declare that the Town Charter grants the authority to restructure the EGFD to the Town and that such authority may not be: (1) bargained away; (2) delegated to an arbitrator; or (3) restricted by contract.

         Plaintiff initially moved for judgment on the pleadings on March 9, 2018. Two separate hearings were held-on May 24, 2018 and June 19, 2018, respectively-on the merits of each party's argument regarding whether the Town has a "non-delegable management right" to reorganize the EGFD. This Court now issues a Decision in this matter pursuant to its jurisdiction under G. L. 1956 §§ 9-30-1 et seq. and G. L. 1956 § 8-2-13.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The Town of East Greenwich is a municipality with a Town Council/Town Manager form of government. (Am. Compl. ¶ 10.) The Union is a labor organization and the exclusive bargaining agent for all permanent employees of the EGFD, except for the Chief and the Deputy Chief. Id. ¶¶ 2, 3.

         On or about March 15, 2016, the Town and the Union executed a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which includes several provisions concerning the pay, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment for the Town's firefighting and rescue personnel assigned to a "four platoon system." (Pl.'s Ex. A.) The CBA is the result of negotiations between the Union and Town representatives. The CBA is set to expire in June of 2019. Id.

         In the CBA, the parties explicitly agreed to a four platoon system and at least twenty-one separate sections of the CBA-including sections concerning wages, shift schedule, and overtime-expressly apply to employees assigned to a four platoon system. Id. "By operating the Fire Department with a four-platoon system, the Town [agreed to] separate[] its line fire suppression and emergency rescue personnel into four groups, or platoons." (Am. Compl. ¶ 23) (Ex. A §§ 10, 61.) The Town also agreed, inter alia, (1) to permit firefighters to bid to particular platoons where they will work an average of forty-two hours per week; (2) to a work schedule for each firefighter of two ten-hour days, followed by two fourteen-hours nights, followed by four days off; (3) to specific hourly rates; and (4) to pay firefighters time-and-one-half their hourly rate when they work outside their regular shift schedule. (Ex. A §§ 26, 36, 39.) Finally, the parties agreed that the firefighters' pay would not be docked when they are representing the interests of their fellow bargaining unit members. Under the CBA, any dispute between the parties regarding conditions of employment shall be determined by an arbitrator. Id. § 46.

         The Town alleges that it intends to reorganize the EGFD and implement a three platoon structure, rather than the current four platoon structure as is delineated in the CBA. Although very few facts have been included in the pleadings with respect to the initial notice of the Town's intent to reorganize and the subsequent negotiations arising therefrom, the Union, in its initial objection to the Town's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, provided a rather extensive history as to this development. The Town, in its Reply in Further Support of its Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, objected to these facts as prejudicial and unsupported but ultimately did not deny or contradict them. Though this "history" is not established as part of the record, it may be helpful in terms of understanding context. The Union provided the following:

"On December 5, 2017, the Union and Town met to discuss some pending grievances. During the meeting, one of the Town's attorneys . . . gave [fire fighter] Lt. Perry a letter from [the Town Manager] dated the same day. The letter provides that [the Town Manager] discussed her intentions 'with the Council to reorganize the line firefighting rescue division into a three-platoon, 56-hour workweek structure.' According to the letter, the Council authorized her to engage in negotiations over the effects of 'that reorganization prior to its full implementation. . . .'
"On December 6, 2017, the Union and Town reached a tentative agreement whereby the Town agreed that it would not reorganize the fire department in exchange for certain concessions from the Union. In addition, the Town agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement an additional two years, and provide wage increases. (Emphasis added).
"On December 11, 2017, [one of the Town's Attorneys] sent two documents to a representative from the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters "reflecting our tentative agreement in East Greenwich." One week later, on December 18, 2017, the Town filed the instant lawsuit. . . .
"On January 3, 2018, the Union . . . went to Town Hall for the scheduled meeting . . . . Before the Union could provide the Town representatives with written copy of the tentative agreement, [the Town Manager] advised the Union that there was no deal. She asserted that on December 18, 2017, in executive session, the Town Council unanimously rejected nearly every single promise it had made the Union at the December 6, 2017 bargaining session." (Emphasis in original).

         A significant portion of the decision to reorganize the EGFD was first raised on December 5, 2018, in which a letter from the Town Manager detailed her intentions to reorganize, and it appears negotiations ensued. Just under a month later, on January 3, 2018, it appears the issue of reorganization was decided and off the table without any discussion or negotiation with the Union. Although these facts are not agreed upon, there are letters-provided to this Court from the Union-documenting such. This history, of course, only goes to the issue of negotiations undertaken-or not undertaken-regarding the decision to reorganize the EGFD.

         The Town now alleges that "[t]he Town Manager has decided to exercise her non-delegable statutory power, responsibility and obligation to reorganize the Fire Department into a three-platoon structure, and she has received approval and obtained authority from the Town Council to commence negotiations over the effects of the decision to implement the three-platoon structure." (Am. Compl. ¶ 47.)

         Subsequent to a conference in chambers, in which the issue of justiciability was brought to light, [1] the Town Council took a vote relevant to the issues of justiciability and ripeness. The Council ultimately voted to accept the Town Manager's recommendation to reorganize the EGFD from its current four platoon structure to a three platoon structure. The Town Council also noted that, although they had voted to implement the reorganization of the EGFD, they would nonetheless hold the reorganization in abeyance pending this Court's decision on Plaintiff's pending motion. The Union agreed that it was in the best interest of both parties to hold the implementation in abeyance until a decision had been rendered.

         The Town now alleges that "[a] controversy exists between the Town and the Union concerning the Town's assertion of management right to decide to implement three-platoon structure in the Town's Fire Department." Id. ¶ 51. The Town brings this action for declaratory judgment to resolve disputes and have declared the rights, status and other legal relations of and between the Town and the Union concerning the Town's assertion of its fundamental and non-delegable management rights to decide the organizational structure, the size and the appropriate staffing levels of the EGFD.

         II

         Standard of Review

         A

         Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act

         A declaratory judgment '"is neither an action at law nor a suit in equity but a novel statutory proceeding . . . ."' Northern Trust Co. v. Zoning Bd. of Review of Town of Westerly, 899 A.2d 517, 520 n.6 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Newport Amusement Co. v. Maher, 92 R.I. 51, 53, 166 A.2d 216, 217 (1960)). Our Supreme Court recognizes that the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) "vests the Superior Court with the 'power to declare rights, status, and other legal relations whether or not further relief is or could be claimed.'" Malachowski v. State of Rhode Island, 877 A.2d 649 (R.I. 2005) (citations omitted) (quoting § 9-30-1); see also Sullivan, 703 A.2d at 750 (stating that trial court's "decision to grant or to deny declaratory relief under the [UDJA] is purely discretionary[]"). "This power is broadly construed, 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) (quoting Capital Properties, Inc. v. State, 749 A.2d 1069, 1080 (R.I. 1999)).

         It is well settled that a justice of the Superior Court has discretion to grant or deny declaratory relief under the UDJA. Sullivan, 703 A.2d at 751 (citing Woonsocket Teachers' Guild Local Union 951, AFT v. Woonsocket School Comm., 694 A.2d 727, 729 (R.I. 1997) and Lombardi v. Goodyear Loan Co., 549 A.2d 1025, 1027 (R.I. 1988)). '"A decision to grant or deny declaratory relief is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial justice and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the record demonstrates a clear abuse of discretion or the trial justice committed an error of law."' Imperial Cas. & Indem. Co. v. Bellini, 888 A.2d 957, 961 (R.I. 2005) (quoting Hagenberg v. Avedisian, 879 A.2d 436, 441 (R.I. 2005)).

         It is the function of the trial justice to undertake fact-finding and then decide whether declaratory relief is appropriate. Providence Lodge No. 3, Fraternal Order of Police v. Providence External Review Auth., 951 A.2d 497, 502 (R.I. 2008). "It is well-established that 'the findings of fact of a trial justice, sitting without a jury, will be given great weight and will not be disturbed absent a showing that the trial justice overlooked or misconceived material evidence or was otherwise clearly wrong."' Id. (quoting Casco Indemnity Co. v. O'Connor, 755 A.2d 779, 782 (R.I. 2000)). In a nonjury action where a special master has been appointed, the trial justice "shall accept the master's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous." Super. R. Civ. P. 53(e)(2).

         The UDJA "gives a broad grant of jurisdiction to the Superior Court to determine the rights of any person that may arise under a statute not in its appellate capacity but as part of its original jurisdiction." Canario v. Culhane, 752 A.2d 476, 479 (R.I. 2000) (citing Roch v. Garrahy, 419 A.2d 827, 830 (R.I. 1980)). Additionally, the UDJA '"neither imposes an unflagging duty upon the courts to decide declaratory judgment actions nor grants an entitlement to litigants to demand declaratory remedies."' Pardee v. Consumer Portfolio Servs., Inc., 344 F.Supp.2d 823 (D.R.I. 2004) (quoting El Dia, Inc. v. Hernandez Colon, 963 F.2d 488, 493 (1st Cir. 1992)). Thus, the purpose of such declaratory judgment actions "is to render disputes concerning the legal rights and duties of parties justiciable without proof of a wrong committed by one party against another, and thus facilitate the termination of controversies." Millett v. Hoisting Eng'rs' Licensing Div. of the Dep't of Labor, 119 R.I. 285, 377 A.2d 229 (1977) (citing 1 Anderson, Actions for Declaratory Judgments § 4 (2d ed. 1951) (citations omitted). Such a purpose of the UDJA is valuable in that "[i]t is designed to enable litigants to clarify legal rights and obligations before acting upon them." Ernst & Young v. Depositors Econ. Prot. Corp., 45 F.3d 530 (1st Cir. 1995).

         B

         Judgment on the Pleadings

         A Rule 12(c) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings provides a trial court with the ability to dispose of a case early in the litigation process "when the material facts are not in dispute . . . and only questions of law remain to be decided." Haley v. Town of Lincoln, 611 A.2d 845, 847 (R.I. 1992) (citation omitted). The Court is restricted to a review of the alleged facts presented in the pleadings in a manner most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. As such, the allegations made in the nonmoving party's pleadings are deemed true for the purpose of the motion. Haley, 611 A.2d at 847; see also Centerville Builders, Inc. v. Wynne, 683 A.2d 1340, 1342 (R.I. 1996). However, "allegations that are more in the nature of legal conclusions rather than factual assertions are not necessarily assumed to be true." DiLibero v. MERS, 108 A.3d 1013, 1016 (R.I. 2015).

         "If a judgment on the pleadings is to be given, it is because it is apparent beyond a reasonable doubt that a trial would be of no use in determining the merits of the plaintiff's claim for relief." Haley, 611 A.2d at 849; see also 1 Robert B. Kent et al., Rhode Island Civil and Appellate Procedure § 12:13 (2016-2017) (when made by the defendant, a motion for judgment on the pleadings attacking the sufficiency of the complaint is "in effect, a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim"). Thus, "[a] Rule 12(c) motion is tantamount to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, and the same test is applicable to both." Chariho Reg'l School Dist. v. Gist, 91 A.3d 783, 787 (R.I. 2014) (citation omitted). If a Rule 12(c) motion is "made by the plaintiff, the motion is analogous to a demurrer to the answer in that it tests the legal sufficiency thereof. The plaintiff can succeed with such a motion only if the answer admits the material allegations of the complaint and sets forth no affirmative" defenses. 1 Robert B. Kent, Rhode Island Civil and Appellate Procedure: Rules of Civil Procedure With Commentaries § 12:13 (2016-2017) "If the answer contains both denials and affirmative defenses, the plaintiff desiring to test the sufficiency of the latter . . . cannot obtain judgment on the pleadings in the face of defendant's denials." Id.

         The Court has held that the "availability of a Rule 12(c) motion to terminate litigation is severely limited in light of the rules of pleading employed by the Superior Court of Rhode Island." Haley, 611 A.2d at 848. "The plaintiff is not required to plead the ultimate facts that must be proven in order to succeed on the complaint." Id. "All that is required is that the complaint give the opposing party fair and adequate notice of the type of claim being asserted." Id.; see Friedenthal, Kane, and Miller, Civil Procedure §§ 5.7 and 5.8 at 252-56 (West 1985). "The policy behind these liberal pleading rules is a simple one: cases in our system are not to be disposed of summarily on arcane or technical grounds." Haley, 611 A.2d at 848. "In light of the simplified pleadings permitted under Rule 8, however, it is most unusual that the information contained on the face of the pleadings will alone be sufficiently definite and complete to allow the court to grant a Rule 12(c) motion." Id.

         "The standard to be applied to a Rule 12(c) motion is 'restrictive,' particularly when 'the questions of law applicable to the controversy are fact intensive."' Heritage Healthcare Servs., Inc. v. Beacon Mut. Ins. Co., 109 A.3d 373, 377 (RI. 2015), citing Haley, 611 A.2d at 847-48. The court must accept that "[t]he factual allegations contained in the nonmovant's pleadings are admitted as true for purposes of the motion," and "[a]ll proper inferences . . . are to be drawn in favor of the nonmovant." Haley, 611 A.2d at 847.

         Further, "[a] motion seeking judgment on the complaint may only be granted if all of the defenses raised in the answer are legally insufficient." Qwest Commc'ns Corp. v. City of Berkeley, 208 F.R.D. 288, 291 (N.D. Cal. 2002) (citing William W. Schwarzer et al., Federal Civil Procedure Before Trial § 9:328). A plaintiff is not entitled to judgment on the pleadings if the answer raises issues of fact or an affirmative defense which, if proved, would defeat plaintiff's recovery. General Conference Corp. of Seventh-Day Adventists v. Seventh-Day Adventist Congregational Church, 887 F.2d 228, 230 (9th Cir. 1989).

         III

         Analysis

         A

         Legislative Motive

         With respect to Count I of the Complaint, and after review of the pleadings and parties' arguments, there appear to be no questions of fact remaining. Rather, only questions of law- pertaining to whether the Town has a management right to reorganize the fire department during the life of a valid CBA-are left to be resolved.

         The only question of fact raised at this stage was that of the Town's motivation in seeking to reorganize the EGFD. The Union argues that the State Labor Relations Board (SLRB) has jurisdiction over this issue-given that a number of pending grievances exist before the SLRB pertaining to the reorganization-and therefore, the Town's motive in reorganizing the EGFD is relevant. In support of its argument, the Union points to a number of labor relations board cases-involving both the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the SLRB-to suggest that a Town's motivation in reorganizing a department is pertinent to the validity of said reorganization.[2] Essentially, the Union alleges that the Town's primary motivation is merely to retaliate against the Union and certain firefighters and that such motivation is relevant in analyzing the merits of this motion.

         The Union contends that the Town cannot exercise its statutory or managerial right to reorganize for the purpose of interfering with the existence of a bargaining unit, namely the Union. The Union believes that Plaintiff violated Section 13 of the State Labor Relations Act (SLRA)[3] when its Town Manager recommended reorganizing the EGFD-laying off six lateral transfers as a result-and the Town Council, without performing any type of investigation or fiscal impact statement, approved the recommendation.

         However, this Court finds the Union's argument as to this point unpersuasive. In this instance, the Town is simply asking the Court to declare whether it has the legal authority to exercise its statutory power to reorganize the EGFD from a four platoon structure to a three platoon structure. This is purely a question of statutory and contract interpretation that requires no inquiry into any legislative motive.

         It is well settled in Rhode Island that the motive of individual legislators is irrelevant to the validity of certain legislation. "[A] valid exercise of legislative power will not be invalidated because certain legislators may have had invalid motives . . . when the legislation in question was enacted." R.I. Liquor Stores Ass'n v. Evening Call Pub. Co., 497 A.2d 331, 335 (R.I. 1985). Only when a legislative act has declared purpose in the legislation will Rhode Island courts look to legislative intent, and even then, courts accept that stated purpose rather than ...


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