Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, December 2, 2005


Page 1


State Workers Cannot Arbitrate Discipline Disputes, S.C. Rules

Constitution Bars Employees From Bypassing State Personnel Board, Court Says in Unanimous Ruling


By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts


State laws that implement collective bargaining agreements by allowing workers in certain units to arbitrate grievances over discipline, bypassing the State Personnel Board, are unconstitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a unanimous decision, the court held that such legislation violates Art. VII, Sec. 3 of the California Constitution, which provides that the State Personnel Board “shall . . . review disciplinary actions” taken against state civil service employees.

The ruling apparently resolves an ongoing dispute between the personnel board and the executive branch going back to 1998, when the Department of Forestry Firefighters union and the Department of Personnel Administration—the executive branch’s labor relations arm—negotiated a contract, known in public sector labor relations parlance as a memorandum of understanding, that altered the manner in which discipline could be appealed.

Arbitration Procedure

In place of the appeal to the personnel board, disciplined firefighters were given the option of presenting a grievance to a Board of Adjustment, consisting of two members appointed by the union and two by the DPA. If the board could not reach a majority decision, the employee could take the case to binding arbitration.

The Legislature subsequently amended the relevant statute, stripping the personnel board of its authority to review disciplinary actions against firefighters electing the new grievance/arbitration process.

Other unions then sought to negotiate similar agreements, and in 1999 the DPA and the California State Employees Association, representing a unit made up of engineering and scientific technicians, agreed that in the limited are of mandatory drug testing for employees operating commercial vehicles, an employee who was suspended or fired after testing positive could contest the action through a grievance and arbitration process.

That same year, the Operating Engineers, representing a unit made up of craft and maintenance workers and another made up of stationary engineers, reached an agreement with DPA that contained arbitration procedures similar to those in the firefighters’ agreement. Legislation implementing those agreements was signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

SPB Challenge

The three agreements and the implementing legislation drew legal challenges from the State Personnel Board and from the union representing state administrative law judges, who conduct hearings when discipline is appealed to the board. The Association of California State Attorneys and Administrative Law Judges has consistently maintained that it is unfair and unlawful for the state to retain private arbitrators to decide disputes that would otherwise be heard by state-employed ALJs.

Two Sacramento Superior Court judges sided with the SPB and the ALJs in their challenge to the procedures. Another judge denied a writ sought by the SPB, but solely on standing grounds. Appeals from the three rulings were consolidated.

The Third District Court of Appeal held that the personnel board “has standing to challenge an MOU which precludes it from carrying out its constitutionally mandated duty to review disciplinary actions.” The justices also held that the MOUs and the implementing legislation restrict the SPB’s authority in ways not permitted by the state Constitution.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for the high court, agreed.

The justice rejected the contention that the legislation and the MOUs did not deprive the SPB of its authority to “review disciplinary actions,” since an employee may still elect to file an SPB appeal rather than pursue a grievance.

Mandatory Jurisdiction

The constitutional language vests the SPB with exclusive, mandatory jurisdiction in all disputes involving discipline of state civil servants, Kennard wrote.

“It would be inimical to California’s constitutionally mandated merit-based system of civil service, which is administered by the State Personnel Board, to wholly divest that board of authority to review employee disciplinary actions in favor of an MOU-created review board,” the justice wrote. “This is so because a state civil service based on the merit principle can be achieved only by developing and consistently applying uniform standards for employee hiring, promotion, and discipline.  By vesting in the nonpartisan State Personnel Board the +sole+ authority to administer the state civil service system....our state Constitution recognizes that this task must be entrusted to [a] single agency, the constitutionally created State Personnel Board.”

The justice rejected the contention that the MOUs merely implement an employee’s right to waive review by the SPB. That “argument rests on the incorrect assumption that the merit-based civil service system exists solely for the benefit of state civil service employees to the exclusion of the general public,” the justice wrote, when the voters who established it by initiative in 1934 intended that the system serve the public interest.

“That public interest would be subverted if various ad hoc arbitral boards, operating beyond the control of the State Personnel Board and not bound to apply its merit-based standards, could review and reverse disciplinary actions taken against state civil service employees,” the justice wrote. As for the waiver argument, she said, an employee may still waive SPB proceedings by accepting the discipline. 

The case is State Personnel Board v. Department of Personnel Administration, 05 S.O.S. 5236.


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