Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in case of Walter Donnellan v. Mt. Lebanon School District, No. 7474 of 1974.
Shelley W. Elovitz, with him Ronald N. Watzman, for appellant.
Emil E. Narick, with him Anderson, Moreland & Bush, for appellee.
Judges Kramer, Mencer and Rogers, sitting as a panel of three. Judge Kramer did not participate in the decision. Opinion by Judge Rogers. Judge Kramer did not participate in the decision in this case. See Pa. R.a.p. 3102(d).
The problem of this appeal is that of ascertaining the proper forum for the decision of a question concerning the period for the payment of the annual salary of a professional employe of a public school district who is a party to an individual written employment contract and who is also a member of a bargaining unit which has entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. May the employe sue on his individual contract in the courts or is his exclusive remedy the arbitration procedures provided in the collective bargaining agreement? The appellant, Walter Donnellan, sued his employer, Mt. Lebanon School District, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County; and the school district contended that the matter was one exclusively for arbitration. The court below, on the school district's motion, entered summary judgment in favor of the school district and against Donnellan. Donnellan has appealed.
Donnellan's complaint in assumpsit said that his employer owed him $319.20, the interest on $2665 in annual salary which his employer, he says, should have paid him on or before June 30, 1974 but which it paid him after that date. His thesis is that his individual contract provides that his salary should be paid "during the school term or year"*fn1 and that the school term or year ended on June 30, 1974. The school district, whose practice has been to pay its professional employes in twelve equal installments over the period of twelve months beginning with September and ending in August, answers that the collective bargaining agreement with Donnellan's union provides a salary schedule for the school year 1973-1974 bearing the
legend "[t]his salary schedule shall commence on the first day teachers report for work for the 1973-1974 school year and shall continue throughout the school year," and that the meaning of and effect of this provision of the collective bargaining agreement must be submitted for arbitration as provided by the collective bargaining agreement and Section 903 of the Public Employe Relations Act (PERA), Act of July 23, 1970, P.L. 563, as amended, 43 P.S. § 1101.903. Donnellan replies that the phrase in the collective bargaining agreement depended on by the school district was not intended to describe the period during which his annual salary must be paid; that the collective bargaining agreement is silent on this matter; and that he must be permitted to sue on his individual contract because that is the only remedy he has for the alleged late payments of salary.
We have concluded that the question for decision is one arguably dealt with by the salary provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, particularly the phrase hereinabove quoted, and that the arbitration provided by the collective bargaining agreement is the proper and only remedy presently available. Section 903 of PERA, 43 P.S. § 1101.903, provides that "[a]rbitration of disputes or grievances arising out of the interpretation of the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement is mandatory." In the very recent case of Community College of Beaver County v. Community College of Beaver County, Society of the Faculty, Pa. , 375 A.2d 1267, 1275 (1977), Justice Pomeroy, writing for a plurality of the five participating Justices, wrote regarding the powers of labor contract arbitrators:
It has long been accepted in contract law that an ambiguous written instrument presents a question of fact for resolution by the finder-of-fact, whereas the meaning of an unambiguous
written instrument presents a 'question of law' for resolution by the court. As the authorities in the field of contracts make clear, however, the latter exercise is also in actuality a factual, not a legal, decision. For a variety of reasons the common law has long thought it best to leave to the court rather than to the jury the essentially factual question of what the contracting parties intended. This fact-finding function exercised by the court is denominated a 'question of law,' therefore, not because analytically it is a question of law but rather to indicate that it is the trial judge, not the jury, to whom the law assigns the responsibility for deciding the matter. All questions of interpretation of written instruments and agreements, in ...