Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Court Lacks Jurisdiction Over Public Employees’ Strike Threats—C.A.
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Public Employment Relations Board, and not the Superior Court, has exclusive initial jurisdiction over threats to strike by public employees whose services are essential to municipal health and safety, the Sixth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Affirming the decision of Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy in a dispute between the City of San Jose and a union that represented city employees over alleged violations of the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, the court held that the board was the proper forum because the act gives the board exclusive initial jurisdiction to determine whether particular public employees covered by the act have the right to strike in cases that implicate the act.
The city and Operating Engineers Local No. 3, which represents approximately 800 of the city’s employees, including a number of individuals the city identified as critical to the continued operation of its sanitation system and other facilities, were engaged in negotiations for a new memorandum of agreement in 2006. After union members rejected a tentative agreement and refused to extend their old contract, the union gave the city 72 hours notice that job actions could begin to occur.
The city filed a complaint for injunctive relief in the superior court and sought a restraining order against a work stoppage by certain employees it identified as providing services essential to public health and safety. The city argued that the board did not have exclusive initial jurisdiction over the common law prohibition against health and safety strikes, that it lacked expertise in determining whether a strike constitutes an imminent threat to public health and safety, and that the board’s processes were not suited to protecting against such threats.
The union countered that the court’s jurisdiction was preempted in favor of the board because the underlying conduct was arguably prohibited or protected by the MMBA. It also asserted that the board had developed procedures to effectively compel remedial action, including the ability to seek injunctions when appropriate, and advised the court that it had filed an unfair practice charge with the board alleging violations of the MMBA by the city.
The board also opposed the city’s request, arguing that the dispute came within its exclusive initial jurisdiction and that the city was required to exhaust its administrative remedies prior to seeking relief in the superior court.
The trial court agreed with the union and the board, and the city appealed, joined by amici curiae the California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities and the County of Santa Clara. The board and the California State Council of Service Employees joined the union on appeal as amici curiae.
The city renewed its earlier arguments, and also contended that it had not alleged any violations of the MMBA that would allow the board to exercise exclusive initial jurisdiction, and that its failure to exhaust administrative remedies was excusable because such remedies were inadequate.
Although the case had become moot after the city and the union reached an agreement for a new contract, the Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case after determining that the issues presented were important and of continuing interest, and sided with the union.
Writing for the court, Justice Richard J. McAdams cited a 2001 amendment to the act and California Supreme Court precedent to conclude that the board had exclusive initial jurisdiction to determine whether public employees covered by the MMBA had the right to strike in cases that implicated the act.
Noting that the city’s complaint about threatened union activity alleged arguably prohibited conduct, while the union’s complaint about the city’s interference with that activity alleged arguably protected activity, McAdams concluded that the act was implicated.
‘Essential’ Employees Exception
He also rejected the city’s argument that the common law prohibition against strikes by “essential” public employees created an exception to the board’s jurisdiction, pointing out important policy considerations underpinned the Legislature’s grant of jurisdiction to the board, that the board had the requisite expertise and available remedies to oversee the dispute, and that the local concern doctrine did not divest the board of jurisdiction because the city’s complaint “‘goes to the essence of labor law’ and thus to the very heart of the agency’s jurisdiction.”
McAdams similarly rejected the city’s argument that it was excused from the requirement that it exhaust all administrative remedies, writing that “the City will not suffer irreparable harm, as the administrative remedies are adequate…[,] its arguments concerning jurisdiction are weak…, [and] the agency’s expertise is relevant in resolving the disputed question of jurisdiction.”
Justices Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian and Wendy Clark Duffy joined McAdams in his opinion.
The case is City of San Jose v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, H30272.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company