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West Allegheny School Dist. v. West Allegheny Education Association

IN THE COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


May 26, 2010

WEST ALLEGHENY SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLANT
v.
WEST ALLEGHENY EDUCATION ASSOCIATION

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Friedman

Argued: April 20, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

West Allegheny School District (School District) appeals from the September 17, 2009,*fn1 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court), which denied the School District's petition to vacate a grievance arbitration award in favor of a teacher whose request to return to work early from childbearing leave due to a financial emergency was denied. We affirm.

On October 2, 2007, Erin Clay (Grievant), an eighth grade teacher, requested childbearing leave pursuant to Article XVII, Section D of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the School District and the West Allegheny Education Association (Association).*fn2 In her letter, Grievant stated:

I am writing concerning my childbearing leave. I am expecting my child on November 9, 2007. I anticipate being able to work up until this date unless my doctor informs me otherwise.

I have 15 days accumulated as of this point and would like to use them all. This would enable me to get paid until December 5, 2007. I would then like to receive Family Medical Leave for 60 days and continue to receive the Continuation of Benefits for my family and myself during this time. The date at the end of the 60 days would be on or about March 11, 2008.

I am asking to extend this leave until November 9, 2008, and realize that I would be responsible for paying my benefits until this time. I realize that I would have to submit a request to the School Board if I need to return to work earlier due to financial obligations.

My husband is a salesman and works on commission, so I am not sure how long I will be able to take off to raise my three children. I am sorry to be so vague on my time of return, I just don't know where we will be financially speaking. It is a possibility that I will have to return to work earlier. Thank you for your time!

(Arbitrator's Award at 12-13, R.R. at 41-42) (emphasis added). The School District approved the request.

On April 9, 2008, Grievant requested that the School District permit her to return to work on May 14, 2008, due to financial obligations. On April 17, 2008, the School District notified Grievant that she could not return to work for the remaining three weeks of the school year because the School District had hired a long-term substitute. In denying Grievant's request, the School District applied Article XVII, Section E(3) of the CBA, pertaining to childrearing leave,*fn3 rather than Article XVII, Section D(3) of the CBA, pertaining to childbearing leave.

The Association filed a grievance on behalf of Grievant, and the matter was heard by an arbitrator. Before the arbitrator, the Association argued that: (1) Grievant took childbearing leave under Section D; (2) under Section D(3), Grievant could return to work early in cases of an emergency; (3) Grievant had a financial emergency; and, (4) thus, the School District should have allowed Grievant to return to work early. The School District argued that: (1) the word "emergency" in Section D(3) refers to childbearing emergencies, i.e., complications from the birth, not financial emergencies;*fn4 and (2) if Grievant were allowed to return to work due to a financial emergency under Section D(3), which applies only to females, then the CBA would discriminate against males because they can only take childrearing leave under Section E, which does not permit them to return to work early any time the School District has hired a long-term substitute. The arbitrator accepted the Association's position and ordered Grievant made whole.*fn5

The School District filed a petition to vacate the award with the trial court, which denied the petition. In doing so, the trial court rejected the School District's argument that the CBA discriminated against males by having separate and different provisions for childbearing and childrearing leave. The trial court explained that female teachers, after childbearing, are not similarly situated with male teachers on childrearing leave because the female teachers may choose to breastfeed their babies and may need to recover physically and emotionally from the childbirth. The School District now appeals to this court.

I. Estoppel

As a threshold matter, the Association argues that the School District, having negotiated the terms in Article XVII, Section D of the CBA, is estopped from arguing that the arbitrator's award violates public policy against sex-based discrimination.*fn6 We agree.

The School District claims that the equitable doctrine of estoppel does not apply in administrative proceedings.*fn7 However, in Fraternal Order of Police, E.B. Jermyn Lodge #2 v. Hickey, 499 Pa. 194, 199, 452 A.2d 1005, 1008 (1982), our supreme court held otherwise, stating:

[A] distinction must be drawn between situations where an arbitration panel attempts to mandate a governing body, over its objection, to carry out an illegal act and situations where the governmental unit employer attempts to belatedly avoid compliance with a term of a bargaining agreement it voluntarily agreed to during the bargaining process and thereby secure an unfair advantage in the bargaining process.

Our supreme court explained:

To permit a public employer to secure an advantage in the bargaining process by agreeing to a term and subsequently avoid compliance by belatedly asserting that term's illegality is equally inimical to the integrity of the bargaining process and undermines the harmonious relationship it was designed to foster..

"To permit an employer to enter into agreements and include terms . which raise the expectations of those concerned, and then to subsequently refuse to abide by those provisions on the basis of . [. the asserted illegality of the term] would invite discord and distrust and create an atmosphere wherein a harmonious relationship would virtually be impossible to maintain."

Id. at 198, 452 A.2d at 1007 (quoting Pittsburgh Joint Collective Bargaining Committee v. City of Pittsburgh, 481 Pa. 66, 74, 391 A.2d 1318, 1322 (1978)). The court emphasized that "[g]ood faith bargaining would require that questions as to the legality of the proposed terms of a collective bargaining agreement should be resolved by the parties to the agreement at the bargaining stage." Id. (quoting Grottenthaler v. Pennsylvania State Police, 488 Pa. 19, 25, 410 A.2d 806, 809 (1980)). "Obviously the statutorily mandated obligation to bargain in good faith is not met by permitting the government employer to avoid the performance of a term by questioning its legality after having received the advantages that flowed from the term's acceptance." Id. at 199, 452 A.2d at 1008.

Here, the arbitrator found that the provision for childbearing leave in Article XVII, Section D has been in existence since the 1977 agreement between the parties. (R.R. at 42.) In addition, the School District granted Grievant's request for childbearing leave, which specifically stated that Grievant might have financial needs that would require her early return to work. Thus, the School District recognized that the word "emergency" in Section D included a financial emergency. Because the School District bargained to allow female teachers to return early from childbearing leave in a financial emergency and never questioned its legality, the School District is estopped from arguing that such a provision is a violation of public policy against sex-based discrimination.

II. Public Policy

Even if we were to conclude otherwise regarding the estoppel issue, we reject the School District's argument that the arbitrator's award requires that the School District violate the public policy against sex-based discrimination.*fn8

The School District asserts that, under Schafer v. Board of Public Education of the School District of Pittsburgh, 903 F.2d 243 (3d Cir. 1990), a school district discriminates against male teachers by denying them childrearing leave where childrearing leave is available to female teachers beyond the period during which they are actually physically disabled on account of their pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. However, in this case, the arbitrator's award does not deny male teachers childrearing leave. In fact, this case has nothing to do with the availability of childrearing leave to male teachers. The arbitrator's award simply allows a female teacher to return early from childbearing leave due to a financial emergency under Section D(3). The award has no impact on male teachers who take childrearing leave under Section E. Indeed, the arbitrator's award has no discriminatory effect because it does not require that the School District deny a male teacher's request to return early from childrearing leave for financial reasons under Section E.

Accordingly, we affirm.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 26th day of May, 2010, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, dated September 17, 2009, is hereby affirmed.

ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge


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