Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Firefighter Layoffs Held Not Subject to Mandatory Bargaining
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that a cash-strapped city’s decision to layoff some of its firefighters as a cost-saving measure without negotiating with union representatives was not an unfair labor practice.
Although the Public Employment Relations Board correctly reached this conclusion in declining to issue a complaint on behalf of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 188, AFL-CIO, against the City of Richmond, the high court said the agency’s determination was properly subjected to judicial review.
The city sent layoff notices to 18 of its 90 firefighters in 2003, informing them that their positions were being eliminated at the end of the year. Union representatives advocated against the layoffs, arguing that other cost-saving measures were available, and met with the city on three occasions to discuss effects of the layoffs on the remaining firefighters.
In January 2004, the union lodged an unfair labor charge with the PERB, alleging that the city had violated California’s Meyers-Milias-Brown Act by, among other things, failing to meet and confer with it over the city’s layoff decision. PERB’s agent declined to issue a complaint, explaining that the union had failed to state a prima facie case for relief because a decision to lay off employees, including firefighters, is not subject to collective bargaining.
The union then petitioned for a writ of mandate, but Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Steven K. Austin declined to order relief. Austin found he had jurisdiction to review the PERB’s decision, but agreed with the agency’s conclusion that a city’s layoff decision was not within the scope of representation under the MMBA. The First District Court of Appeal, Div. Three, affirmed.
Writing for the California Supreme Court, Justice Joyce L. Kennard noted the MMBA provides that any party “aggrieved by a final decision or order of the [NLRB] in an unfair practice case, except a decision of the board not to issue a complaint in such a case,…may petition for a writ of extraordinary relief.”
Kennard reasoned this provision does not preclude the courts from exercising traditional mandate jurisdiction to consider challenges to a PERB decision not to issue a complaint in limited circumstances, in order to “stikean appropriate balance between the Legislature’s interest in giving such agencies broad discretionary authority and the courts’ obligation to discharge their constitutional powers and responsibilities.”
Judicial oversight ensure an agency action is not based on an erroneous statutory construction “allows courts to correct a clearly erroneous construction of the MMBA by PERB when that erroneous construction potentially affects a large class of cases and threatens to frustrate an important policy that the MMBA was enacted to further,” she explained.
The justice cautioned, however, “courts must narrowly construe and cautiously apply” this exception, and emphasized “it remains true that a refusal by PERB to issue a complaint under the MMBA is not subject to judicial review for ordinary error, including insufficiency of the evidence to support the agency’s factual findings and misapplication of the law to the facts, or for abuse of discretion.”
Turning then to the merits of the case, Kennard concluded Fire Fighters Union v. City of Vallejo (1974) 12 Cal.3d 608 was dispositive and reaffirmed its holding.
“[T]he rule adopted in Vallejo is that under the MMBA a local public entity may unilaterally decide that financial necessity requires some employee layoffs, although the entity must bargain over the implementation of that decision and its effects on the remaining employees,” she said.
Since the union in the instant dispute had not made a showing that the PERB’s decision not to issue a complaint was based on a misunderstanding of this rule, Kennard said, mandate was properly denied.
Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote separately agreeing with Kennard’s decision on the merits, but disagreeing with her conclusion that mandamus review of this case was appropriate.
“If it was alleged here that PERB’s refusal to issue a complaint somehow exceeded the board’s statutory powers or violated the union members’ constitutional rights, I would not hesitate to find that the superior court’s equitable mandamus jurisdiction could rightfully be invoked to review such a determination,” he said. Review would also be appropriate, in his opinion, “if PERB had erroneously interpreted a statutory provision as precluding its discretion or power to act and issue a complaint,” Baxter added.
“But, here, the substantive point of law underlying the union’s unfair labor practice charge has long been settled in favor of the city’s actions, and PERB, rather than acting unconstitutionally, or in excess of its statutory powers, or through a mistaken belief that it had no authority to act, simply applied settled law to these particular facts and found no legal or factual basis to issue a complaint,” Baxter said, explaining he felt the court had erred in finding a basis for judicial review.
The case is International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 188, AFL-CIO v. Public Employment Relations Board (City of Richmond), 11 S.O.S. 427.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company