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Jefferson County Court Appointed Employees Association v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board

December 28, 2009

JEFFERSON COUNTY COURT APPOINTED EMPLOYEES ASSOCIATION, APPELLANT
v.
PENNSYLVANIA LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered December 7, 2006 at No. 2285 CD 2005, affirming the Order of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board entered October 18, 2005 at No. PERA-C-04-353-W.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Baer

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: September 8, 2008

OPINION

In this appeal by allowance, we examine, in the context of a labor dispute, the inherent conflict between a board of county commissioners' constitutional right, in its legislative capacity, to implement a budget and the judiciary's constitutional right to administer justice by hiring, firing, and supervising its employees, within that budget. Under the circumstances here presented, we reach the following conclusions: (1) the labor organization representing the judiciary's employees has standing in this matter; (2) the county, in establishing its budget, did not encroach on the judiciary's constitutional right to hire, fire, and supervise its employees; (3) the judiciary did not contravene the county's legislative budget-making function by settling the grievances; (4) the judiciary's constitutional right to hire, fire, and supervise its employees was violated when the salary board eliminated five trial court employee positions; and (5) the county committed an unfair labor practice by refusing to implement the grievance settlements. Thus, for the reasons that follow, we reverse the order of the Commonwealth Court.

As noted, the constitutional confrontation addressed infra arises from an underlying labor dispute initiated through a grievance proceeding (grievance), followed by a trial court action seeking a confirmation of the grievance settlements (confirmation action), which subsequently led to the filing of an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (unfair labor practice).

Jefferson County (County) is a public employer under Act 195, the Public Employee Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 1101.101 et seq. (PERA). Appellant, the Jefferson County Court Appointed Employees Association (Association), is the certified labor organization representing a bargaining unit comprised of County trial court employees. In accord with the definitional section of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), to which the County, through its Board of County Commissioners (Commissioners) and the Association agreed, the employees are "directly involved with and necessary to the functioning" of the Court of Common Pleas of Jefferson County (Judiciary or trial court).*fn1 The County Code, 16 P.S. § 1620 (County Code), provides the Commissioners with the ability to represent the Judiciary in collective bargaining negotiations, so long as such representation does not impair the independence of the Judiciary, namely, its right to hire, fire, and supervise its employees.*fn2

In January 2004, a new Board of County Commissioners took office and prepared a county budget.*fn3 Because county taxes were already levied to the limit permitted by law without trial court approval of a tax increase, the Commissioners petitioned the Judiciary for the authority to raise taxes to fund an anticipated $1.7 million budget deficit. The President Judge denied the Commissioners' petition. The Commissioners subsequently reduced budget appropriations for various county departments, including the Judiciary.

The Commissioners charged the County Salary Board (Salary Board), which consisted of the Commissioners, the County Treasurer, and the President Judge, with implementing the budget reductions. On March 8, 2004, the Salary Board eliminated eleven county positions, including five trial court employee positions that, as mentioned above, in accord with the definitional section of the CBA, were necessary to the functioning of the Judiciary.*fn4 See supra note 1. The President Judge, in his capacity as a member of the Salary Board, provided the sole vote against the elimination of the five trial court employee positions. The Salary Board deferred to the President Judge the selection of the particular positions to be eliminated.

Having made such selection, by letters dated March 15, 2004, the President Judge informed the five bargaining unit members of the elimination of their positions.*fn5 On the same day, the five bargaining unit members (Grievants) filed grievances with their immediate supervisors over the elimination of their positions, pursuant to the CBA's grievance procedure, alleging that the Salary Board's elimination of their positions violated the CBA. Article 21 of the CBA defines a grievance as "a dispute concerning the interpretation, application[,] or alleged violation of this agreement." Article 21 of the CBA delegates the resolution of grievances to the Judiciary.*fn6

The immediate supervisors decided the grievances in favor of the Grievants and issued written determinations to the Grievants' department head, the President Judge. On March 22, 2004, the President Judge sustained the grievances, agreeing with the immediate supervisors' determinations that the elimination of the Grievants' positions violated the CBA and that the Grievants should thus be reinstated. The President Judge forwarded his decision along with the immediate supervisors' letters to the Commissioners. In separate correspondence to the Commissioners on March 23, 2004, the Association echoed the President Judge's conclusion and requested that the Commissioners reinstate the Grievants because the President Judge sustained their grievances, which resulted in enforceable grievance settlements pursuant to Article 21 of the CBA.*fn7 By letter dated March 30, 2004, the Commissioners refused to reinstate the Grievants, concluding that the President Judge's grievance settlements were not enforceable because the Judiciary lacked the authority to resolve the grievances.*fn8 On July 26, 2004, the Association filed an unfair labor practice charge with the PLRB on behalf of the five terminated trial court employees against the County.*fn9 The Association alleged, inter alia, that the County violated Sections 1201(a)(1) and (5) of the PERA, 43 P.S. § 1101.1201(a)(1) and (5), by refusing to comply with the grievance settlements calling for the reinstatement of the five trial court employees under the CBA's grievance procedure.*fn10 The County argued in response that it was not bound by the grievance settlements because they contravened the County's exclusive right to set the county budget for all county departments, including the Judiciary.*fn11

After a hearing examiner (the examiner) for the PLRB held a hearing on the Association's unfair labor practice charge, he issued a proposed decision and order, which found that the County committed an unfair labor practice by failing to implement the grievance settlements. Jefferson County Court Appointed Employees Ass'n v. Jefferson County, Proposed Decision and Order, Case No. PERA-C-04-353-W. The examiner's proposed decision stated that the County, having negotiated a CBA through which it delegated to the Judiciary the authority to resolve grievances under a specified grievance procedure, was bound by the immediate supervisors' and President Judge's resolution of the grievances in favor of the five terminated trial court employees in accord with that procedure. Id. The examiner summarily dealt with the County's constitutional argument, holding that the County failed to prove that compliance with the grievance settlements would impact its budget. Id. In this regard, the examiner noted that the employees had returned to work without budgetary consequences. Id.

On June 29, 2005, the County filed exceptions to the examiner's proposed decision and order. The County again argued that it was not bound by the grievance settlements and that its refusal to implement them was not an unfair labor practice because doing so would violate the separation of powers doctrine by usurping the County's constitutional legislative budgeting function of appropriating funds for the operation of each county department, including the trial court. The PLRB agreed with this argument and entered a final order, contrary to the examiner's proposed decision and order, dismissing the unfair labor practice charge, reasoning that implementing the grievance settlements would infringe on the County's constitutionally protected legislative budgeting function. Jefferson County Court Appointed Employees Ass'n v. Jefferson County, Final Order, Case No. PERA-C-04-353-W.

The PLRB, acknowledging the constitutional ramifications of the case, emphasized that, "the issues sought to be litigated through the grievance procedure invoke much broader constitutional questions that should be litigated in a judicial forum, not before the PLRB." Id. The PLRB accordingly found that the Association lacked standing to grieve the terminations because the grievances did not arise from the CBA, but rather involved the County's legislative budgeting function. Id. The PLRB also noted that if the Judiciary deemed the County's failure to provide sufficient funding to the judicial ...


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