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West Warwick Housing Authority v. RI Council 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Kent

September 18, 2019

WEST WARWICK HOUSING AUTHORITY, Plaintiff
v.
RI COUNCIL 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Defendant WEST WARWICK HOUSING AUTHORITY, Plaintiff
v.
RI COUNCIL 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Defendant

          For Plaintiff: Gregory Piccirilli, Esq.

          For Defendant: Carly Beauvais Iafrate, Esq. Silvio Napolitano, IV, Esq.

          DECISION

          LICHT, J.

         I. Introduction

         West Warwick Housing Authority (the Authority) has moved in two separate motions to vacate an arbitration award; RI Council 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO (RI Council 94) also filed two corresponding motions to confirm an arbitration award. The awards reinstated employees of the Authority who were both terminated in April of 2016. RI Council 94 is a labor organization that represents certain state and municipal employees for the purposes of a collective bargaining agreement. One of RI Council 94's bargaining units is Local 2405 which is comprised of members employed by the Authority (collectively, the Union). This Court is addressing both cases as they involve substantially similar issues as to whether the grievances were arbitrable. The Court will then address separately in this Decision the award of the arbitrator in each case. This Court's jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§ 28-9-14 and 28-9-18.

         For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the Union's motions to confirm the labor arbitration awards and denies the Authority's motions to vacate the labor arbitration awards.

         II Facts and Travel

         The Authority is a small agency that operates public housing for the Town of West Warwick, Rhode Island. The first case arises out of a labor arbitration award that was issued on July 8, 2016. The award ordered the reinstatement of an employee, Deborah Tellier, of the Authority who was terminated from her job together with the payment of back pay, less earnings and unemployment benefits she received. (Arbitrator's Award 1, July 8, 2016.) Ms. Tellier was hired by the Authority in May of 2011 as a Senior Housing Specialist. Id. at 5. Ms. Tellier's duties included processing rent checks for Section 8 landlords; collecting, posting, and depositing rents and security deposits; organizing files for auditors; and other recordkeeping duties. Id. In September 2014, the Authority was audited by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and several violations and problems were discovered. Id.; Authority's Br. 2. As a result of the audit, a consulting management company was hired to address the deficiencies of the Authority and to find a new executive director. (Authority's Br. 2-3.) In January of 2015, Kathleen Fagan was hired by the consulting company to assist in its efforts, and she was appointed as Acting Executive Director in April of 2015. Id. at 3.

         The Authority contends that Ms. Tellier was fired for multiple incidents that occurred between April 21, 2015 and April 24, 2015. Ms. Tellier allegedly was spying on Ms. Fagan, recorded conversations she had with Ms. Fagan, and attempted to intimidate Ms. Fagan. Id. at 3; Arbitrator's Award 19, July 8, 2016. On April 27, 2015, the Authority suspended Ms. Tellier and notified Ms. Tellier that it was contemplating termination. (Arbitrator's Award 2, July 8, 2016.) On April 29, 2015, Ms. Fagan sent a letter to Ms. Tellier notifying her that she intended to recommend her termination to the Authority's Board of Commissioners. (Authority's Br. 3.) Then, on April 30, 2015, Ms. Fagan received Ms. Tellier's test results for the Housing Choice Voucher and Public Housing Rental Calculation online course which Ms. Tellier failed. Id. at 3-4. Ms. Tellier was given the opportunity to address her termination on May 11, 2015, and the Authority's Board of Commissioners confirmed her termination. Id. at 4.

         On June 5, 2015, the Union demanded arbitration over Ms. Tellier's termination. (Arbitrator's Award 14, July 8, 2016.) The arbitration hearings were held on March 1, 2016 and March 31, 2016. Id. at 2. In his July 8, 2016 award, the arbitrator addressed the issue of whether the grievance was substantively arbitrable. The arbitrator found that the Collective Bargaining Agreement (the CBA) submitted at arbitration was valid even if it did not have HUD approval, because it was the duty of the Authority to obtain HUD approval and the Authority had acted under the CBA and now could not repudiate it. Id. at 9-10. Next, the arbitrator found that the CBA had not expired because it automatically renewed under the terms of the CBA and extended to at least December 31, 2015. Id. at 10. Finally, the arbitrator found that Ms. Tellier, as a Senior Housing Specialist, was a bargaining unit employee because Article 1 of the CBA does not exclude this position. Id. at 12-13. The arbitrator then addressed the merits of the grievance and found that the Authority did not have just cause to terminate Ms. Tellier. Id. at 13-15.

         The second case arises out of a labor arbitration award that was issued on September 30, 2016. The award ordered the reinstatement of an employee of the Authority, Rose-Marie Coates, as a Receptionist who had been terminated from her job together with the payment to Ms. Coates of back pay, less earnings and unemployment benefits she received. (Arbitrator's Award 1, Sept. 30, 2016.) Ms. Coates was hired by the Authority as a Receptionist but was acting in the capacity of a Housing Specialist at the time of her termination. Id. at 5.

         Ms. Fagan recommended the termination of Ms. Coates after a series of events occurred on April 9, 2015. Id. The Authority contends that Ms. Coates refused to allow Ms. Fagan to assist her in answering the phones and refused to assist with leasing a unit because these were tasks only specific union employees could perform. Id. at 17-18. Ms. Coates also refused to pack up boxes that were left out in the office. Id. at 18. Ms. Coates was treated as a party under the same CBA that governed Ms. Tellier's dispute and was given the opportunity to address her termination at a special meeting on April 14, 2015. Id. at 17. The Authority's Board of Commissioners confirmed her termination. Id. at 13.

         On April 16, 2015, the Union demanded arbitration over the termination. Id. Arbitration began on October 7, 2015, but it was held in abeyance. (Authority's Br. 3.) The hearing was conducted on July 29, 2016. (Arbitrator's Award 2, Sept. 30, 2016.) In his September 30, 2016 award, the arbitrator addressed the issue of whether the grievance was substantively arbitrable. The arbitrator considered the same three issues that he examined in Ms. Tellier's grievance and found that the dispute was arbitrable. Id. at 13-15. The arbitrator then addressed the merits of the grievance and determined that the Authority did not have just cause to terminate Ms. Coates. Id. at 15-17.

         III Parties' Arguments

         A The Authority's Argument

         The Authority first contends that both grievances were not substantively arbitrable. In support of this contention, the Authority argues that the CBA submitted at arbitration was never ratified by HUD as required under its own terms. The Authority alleges that there is no evidence that the CBA was approved by HUD and this approval is a precondition to the CBA's validity. The Authority further asserts that the grievance was not substantively arbitrable because the positions of Senior Housing Specialist and Housing Specialist were never properly part of the bargaining unit and, therefore, Ms. Tellier and Ms. Coates could not be protected by the CBA. The original certification of the bargaining unit was only for maintenance employees. The Authority asserts that no proper accretion petition was filed by the Authority or the Union to add additional positions to the bargaining unit. The Authority also asserts that even if the positions were accreted by consent of both parties, a consent agreement must be submitted to the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board (the Labor Board). Moreover, the Authority argues that the CBA submitted at arbitration expired prior to Ms. Tellier's and Ms. Coates' termination. The CBA has a contract term from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2014, which is automatically renewed yearly unless either party gives 120 days' notice prior to the CBA's expiration that it desires to negotiate changes to the CBA. The Authority contends that the CBA expired on December 31, 2014.

         The Authority then addressed the merits of each arbitration decision. First, as to Ms. Tellier, the Authority asserts that there was more than sufficient cause to terminate Ms. Tellier; therefore, the arbitrator's award was clearly irrational. The Authority states that Ms. Tellier was incompetent in her position, she made no attempt to improve at her position, and she treated her boss with contempt. Additionally, the Authority states that even if there was no just cause for termination, the position of Senior Housing Specialist is no longer a position and the arbitrator's award reinstating this position creates an obligation that goes beyond the CBA.

         Next, as to Ms. Coates, the Authority asserts that there was more than sufficient cause to terminate Ms. Coates; therefore, the arbitrator's award was irrational. The Authority contends that the arbitrator's award was completely irrational because it imposed a progressive discipline standard for behavior that was grossly insubordinate. The Authority further asserts that the arbitrator made an irrational decision by not admitting relevant evidence of Ms. Coates' and Ms. Fagan's prior testimony. Additionally, the Authority states that even if there was no just cause for termination, the position of Housing Specialist is no longer a position and the arbitrator's award creates an obligation that goes beyond the CBA.

         B The Union's Argument

         The Union asserts that the grievance is arbitrable. The Union contends that the Authority's three arguments to vacate the arbitrator's award simply represent a disagreement with the arbitrator's award and fall short of the standard necessary to vacate an award. It appears that the Union is arguing that the de novo standard used by this Court to determine arbitrability is not applicable to these three arguments. The Union first contends that the arbitrator found it was the Authority's responsibility to submit the agreement to HUD and the Authority cannot now use its failure to do so as a defense. The Union then asserts that the CBA had not expired at the time the grievance was filed because the arbitrator found that neither party notified each other 120 days prior to the expiration of the CBA of an intention to change the terms of the CBA. Finally, the Union contends that the Authority did not provide a basis to vacate the award when arguing that the positions at issue were not in the CBA.

         The Union then addressed the merits of each arbitration decision. First, as to Ms. Tellier, the Union asserts that this Court's standard of review for arbitration decisions is limited and the arbitrator extensively reviewed the facts of the case and the positions of the parties against the principle of just cause required by the CBA. The Union then contends that the arbitrator properly determined that the Authority had not put Ms. Tellier on notice of her deficiencies and failed to give her an opportunity to improve, which is required under the CBA. Additionally, the Union addressed the removal of Senior Housing Specialist as a position at the Authority, and the Union contends that the arbitrator has great discretion in determining a remedy. Thus, the Union argues that while the Authority may disagree with the arbitrator's award, this is an insufficient basis upon which to vacate the award.

         Next, as to Ms. Coates, the Union again asserts that this Court's standard of review for arbitration decisions is limited. The Union contends that the arbitrator properly found that the Authority failed to meet its burden of proving the allegations of insubordination of Ms. Coates. Thus, while the Authority may disagree with the ...


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