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
Plaintiffs: Carly Beauvais Iafrate, Esq.
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
Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice
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 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.
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."
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[.]" The union also alleged that the rejection
of the six-month agreement by the town council was arbitrary
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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 ...