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Northumberland County Commissioners v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 10, 2013

Northumberland County Commissioners and Kathleen M. Strausser
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO Local 2016, Council 86, Appellant

Argued: March 13, 2013




Appellant American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Local 2016, Council 86 (Union) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Northumberland County (trial court), which vacated an arbitration award at the request of Appellees Northumberland County Commissioners and Kathleen M. Strausser, the Prothonotary of Northumberland County (collectively, County). The vacated award reinstated Dana Klokis (Grievant) as an accounting clerk in the Northumberland County Office of the Prothonotary. For the reasons set forth below, we reverse and remand this matter to the trial court.

On November 21, 2006, while the Northumberland County Commissioners (Commissioners) were negotiating a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the Union, Ms. Strausser, in her capacity as the Prothonotary of Northumberland County, sent a memorandum to the Commissioners, advising them that she did not want the CBA to "encroach or diminish" her statutory rights to hire, discharge, and supervise employees. (Certified Record (C.R.), Item No. 1, Ex. D.) Subsequently, the Union and the Commissioners reached an impasse in their negotiations, and, as a result, they requested binding interest arbitration under Section 805 of the Public Employe Relations Act (Act 195), Act of July 23, 1970, P.L. 563, repealed in part, 43 P.S. § 1101.805.

The impasse was heard before a panel of three arbitrators. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 53a.) During the hearing, a number of the County's row officers, including Ms. Strausser, testified regarding their rights under Section 1620 of the County Code (Code), Act of August 9, 1955, P.L. 323, as amended, 16 P.S. § 1620, relating to salaries and compensation of county officers. (Id. at 53a-54a.) Specifically, they testified, inter alia, concerning the shortcomings of the then-existing "just cause" termination provision in the CBA, which had carried over from an earlier CBA between the parties. (Id.) The row officers' chief concern with the just cause provision was that it did not permit them to terminate immediately an employee for certain egregious misconduct. (Id.)

Following the hearing, the panel rendered an award that specifically addressed the row officers' concerns. (Id. at 55a.) The panel's interest arbitration award, in particular, amended the just cause provision in the CBA by adding a subsection that would permit row officers to terminate immediately employees for certain enumerated acts. (Id.) The award also amended the management rights provisions of the CBA, by adding Section 5 to Article IV. (Id.) Neither party appealed the interest arbitration award.

On January 14, 2009, Ms. Strausser discharged Grievant, an Accounting Clerk III, from employment with the Prothonotary's office. (Id. at 46a; Certified Record (C.R.), Item No. 1, Ex. A.) On January 15, 2009, the Union filed a grievance with the County on Grievant's behalf, alleging that Ms. Strausser terminated Grievant's employment without just cause in violation of the CBA. (R.R. at 46a.) The Union requested that Grievant be reinstated with full back pay and benefits in order to be rendered whole. (Id.) On March 6, 2009, the County found Grievant's termination to be premised on just cause and, as a result, dismissed the grievance. (Id. at 49a.) On March 20, 2009, the Union notified the County of its intent to proceed to arbitration under the CBA. (Id. at 50a.)

On August 24, 2010, Arbitrator Lawrence J. Spilker (Arbitrator Spilker) conducted a grievance hearing, during which the County and the Union offered testimony and other evidence. (Arbitrator Spilker's decision and award regarding arbitrability (Arbitrability Award), attached to Union's Brief as "Ex. A" at 1.) The issues before Arbitrator Spilker were (1) whether the grievance was arbitrable, and (2) whether Ms. Strausser terminated Grievant with just cause. (Id.) With the parties' consent, Arbitrator Spilker considered and disposed of the issues separately. (Id.)

On November 12, 2010, Arbitrator Spilker issued the Arbitrability Award. (Id. at 21.) Arbitrator Spilker noted that the County had raised several arguments against the arbitrability of the grievance. The County argued that the grievance was not arbitrable on the basis of Section 1620 of the Code.[1] (Id. at 3.) Specifically, the County argued that Ms. Strausser terminated Grievant pursuant to her Section 1620 rights—i.e., the rights to hire, discharge, and supervise employees, which she never surrendered through the CBA. In fact, the County argued that Ms. Strausser had articulated an intention to retain the Section 1620 rights on several occasions and that she never authorized the Commissioners to bargain away those rights. (Id. at 10.) Additionally, the County argued that, regardless of Ms. Strausser's preservation of her Section 1620 rights, the CBA was invalid to the extent it infringed upon row officers' Section 1620 rights. (Id.)

In response, the Union argued that the grievance was arbitrable because specific provisions in the CBA explicitly governed the discharge of employees for just cause and subjected them to the agreed-upon grievance procedures. (Id. at 6.) The Union also argued that the County's Section 1620 argument was without merit, because Ms. Strausser had waived at least a portion of her Section 1620 rights. (Id. at 7.) Specifically, the Union argued that Ms. Strausser had participated at the interest arbitration hearing affecting her Section 1620 rights, where she accepted certain limitations on her ability to terminate employees. (Id.) Also, the Union argued that had she objected to the interest arbitration award, particularly the amendment to the just cause provision, Ms. Strausser would have appealed it. (Id. at 7-8.)

Arbitrator Spilker determined that the applicable sections of the CBA included:


Section 8: A. Employees may be disciplined, discharged, suspended or demoted for just cause, subject to the provisions of the grievance procedure. In the case of a demotion, suspension or discharge, the employee may file the grievance at the Third Step of the grievance procedure. The Union shall be notified promptly by the Employer of any demotion, suspension or discharge. Any action instituted against an employee will be within a reasonable period of time after the event giving rise to such disciplinary action or knowledge thereof.
B. The following offenses are considered to be of a serious nature and may be subject ...

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