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National Education Association Rhode Island v. Town of Middletown

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 13, 2019

National Education Association Rhode Island et al.
Town of Middletown, by and through its Finance Director, Lynn Dible, et al.

          Providence County Superior Court, PC 15-4802 Richard A. Licht Associate Justice

          For Plaintiffs: Carly Beauvais Iafrate, Esq.

          For Defendants: Timothy C. Cavazza, Esq. Ronald F. Cascione, Esq. Benjamin M. Scungio, Esq. Timothy K. Baldwin, Esq.

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


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         This case came before the Supreme Court on March 27, 2019, on appeal by the plaintiffs, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Middletown Teachers' Association/NEA (collectively the union), from the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, the Town of Middletown (the town), the Middletown School Committee (the school committee), and the Middletown School Department (the school department) (collectively defendants). The parties were directed to appear and show cause why this case should not be summarily decided. After reviewing the memoranda of the parties and the arguments by counsel, we are satisfied that cause has not been shown. We proceed to decide this case without further briefing and argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         The facts and travel of this case, taken from the pleadings and memoranda of the parties, are not in dispute. In February 2015, the union and the school committee began negotiations for a successor agreement to the collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) that was due to expire on August 31, 2015. Mediation subsequently ensued, and a tentative agreement for a six-month contract, from September 1, 2015, to February 28, 2016, was reached on August 11, 2015. The tentative agreement provided that the terms of the existing contract would remain in place for an additional six months, "unless a successor agreement is earlier agreed to by the parties and ratified by the Middletown Council." (Emphasis added.) The parties also agreed that the tentative agreement would "not be binding on the parties unless and until it is ratified by the Middletown Town Council." (Emphasis added.) On September 21, 2015, the town council declined to ratify the tentative agreement. The union filed suit.

         On November 2, 2015, the union filed a complaint in Providence County Superior Court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. An amended complaint was subsequently filed on November 13, 2015. The genesis of this case relates to a November 2012 amendment to the Middletown Town Charter (the amendment) that provides that all collective-bargaining agreements affecting any department of town government, including the school department, "shall have no force or effect until and unless they are first ratified by a majority vote of the town council."

         The union sought a declaration that, under the so-called "Michaelson Act," the 2012 amendment "does not give the Town any authority to approve or reject a six-month contract reached between the Union and the School Committee[.]"[1] The union also alleged that the rejection of the six-month agreement by the town council was arbitrary and capricious.

         The union also requested a declaration that the amendment does not vest the town council with any authority, express or implied, over the contracts reached between the union and the school committee, and further that, if the amendment applied to the school committee, then "[a]ll of the obligations previously held by the School Committee must be assigned to the Town Council[, ]" effectively nullifying the Michaelson Act. The union also sought a somewhat doomsday-like judicial declaration that, if "the Michaelson Act [does] not apply to either the Union or to the Town[, ]" then "there are no applicable statutory dispute resolution procedures to resolve contract disputes between the Town and the Union[, ]" including the prohibition against teacher strikes.

         Additionally, the union sought a declaration that, when the General Assembly ratified the amendment in 2012, "the General Assembly did not expand the scope of the Town Council's authority as it relates to certified teachers as purported by the Town Council." The union also sought injunctive relief "in conjunction with the declaratory judgment."

         The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that this Court "has twice upheld and enforced a nearly identical ratification requirement that existed as a local ordinance in the City of Providence, even without legislative ratification"; and, citing to Providence Teachers Union v. Providence School Board, 689 A.2d 384, 386 (R.I. 1996), and Providence City Council v. Cianci, 650 A.2d 499, 501 (R.I. 1994), defendants argued that "this well-settled precedent, and the clear and unambiguous language of the Town's legislatively ratified Charter," are dispositive of the issues in this case.

         While defendants' motion for summary judgment was pending, the parties agreed to a new three-year CBA, effective from September 1, 2015, to August 31, 2018. On April 18, 2016, the town council voted to ratify the agreement. Thus, the issue of mootness came to the forefront of this case. Although defendants maintained that they were entitled to summary judgment on the merits, in a supplemental memorandum in support of summary judgment, defendants also argued that the newly reached 2015-2018 three-year CBA rendered this dispute moot.

         The union argued that the case was "not moot because it is capable of repetition yet evading review, which is a very well known exception to the doctrine of mootness." According to the union, the issue was important because "when the School Committee comes to the table, and when they know that what they are doing must be ratified by the Town Council, then it alters the sc[o]pe of the very negotiations[, ]" because if the union knows "that ultimately we have to bring the deal back to the Town Council, it alters everything; and if we know that we don't have to, it alters everything." When asked if the requests for declaratory relief before the court pertained to the six-month CBA or the three-year CBA, the union responded that both contracts were before the court. The union argued that, although some of the declaratory relief it was seeking related only to the rejected six-month tentative agreement, "the overall legal question which is, does the School Committee have the authority to enter into its own contracts[, ]" related to either a CBA "or any other contract."

         After reviewing the undisputed facts of the case, the trial justice quoted Boyer v. Bedrosian, 57 A.3d 259 (R.I. 2012), for the proposition that a case becomes moot "if there is no continuing stake in the controversy, or if the court's judgment would fail to have any practical effect on the controversy." Boyer, 57 A.3d at 272. The trial justice concluded that, although at the time the amended complaint was filed the town council had rejected the six-month agreement that was reached by the parties, a new three-year CBA had been negotiated and ratified by the town council since then. Thus, he concluded that, "while a justiciable controversy existed at the time the complaint was filed, the ratification of the new [CBA] appears to have deprived the Union of any continuing stake in this controversy." In granting summary judgment in favor of defendants, the trial justice declined to reach the merits of defendants' legal arguments.

         The trial justice also rejected the narrow exception to the mootness doctrine that is available when the issue is one of extreme public importance yet is capable of evading review. The trial justice did not address whether the issues raised in the union's complaint are of extreme public importance. He concluded, however, that, while repetition of the same issue was possible, the union had not adequately demonstrated "why the issue is one that would evade review[.]" The trial justice stated that, in the event the issue arose again, the union ...

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