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California Area School District v. California Area Education Association PSEA/NEA

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 10, 2019

California Area School District
v.
California Area Education Association PSEA/NEA, Appellant

          Argued: May 6, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge

          OPINION

          PATRICIA A. MCCULLOUGH, JUDGE

         California Area Education Association, PSEA/NEA (Union) appeals from the August 22, 2018 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County (trial court) that, upon the Union's motion for reconsideration, vacated a May 29, 2017 grievance arbitration award and remanded the matter to the arbitrator for further proceedings.

         Facts and Procedural History

         The Union is the exclusive representative of a collective bargaining unit of professional employees of the California Area School District (District). (2014-2019 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the District and the Union at Art. I, Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 242a.) Before the start of the 2016/17 school year, the District decided to eliminate two specialist positions, including a full-time high school librarian and a half-time elementary school art teacher. (Arbitration Award at 3, 8.) On August 30, 2016, the Union filed a grievance alleging that the District's elimination of the two specialist positions violated Article IX of the CBA. Id. Article IX.A of the CBA, titled "Specialists," and sub-titled "Minimum," provides that the District and the Union "recognize[] the fact that an adequate number of competent specialists is essential to the operation of an effective education program." (CBA at Art. IX.A.) After the initial steps of the grievance procedure failed to resolve the grievance, the matter proceeded to arbitration and an arbitration hearing was conducted on March 15, 2017.

         A. The Arbitration Award

         At arbitration, the District took the position that (1) the CBA does not require a specific number of specialists; (2) the duties of the specialist positions that were eliminated were reassigned to other members of the staff for the school year; and (3) there was no violation of the CBA. (Arbitration Award at 5.) In contrast, the Union took the position that (1) the District violated Article IX of the CBA because "the elimination of the two positions resulted in a not 'adequate number of specialists'" as required by the CBA; and (2) the District was no longer offering an effective educational program for its students because the two specialists were eliminated. Id. (quoting CBA at Art. IX.A.)

         In his award, the arbitrator found that during the 2015/16 school year, a full-time high school librarian and half-time elementary school art teacher retired. (Arbitration Award at 6.) Thereafter, the District decided that, rather than hire new teachers to replace the retired employees, it could parcel out the duties of the art teacher and librarian to the remaining staff. Id. Thus, instead of hiring replacements for the retired employees, the District filled the vacancies by reassignment of existing teachers. Id. "This resulted in a two employee reduction in the District, without a reduction in force or layoff situation occurring," meaning that "the staffing level was decreased through attrition." Id. The arbitrator noted that the specialist reduction occurred due to economic conditions. Id. at 7.

          The arbitrator concluded that, although the CBA does not require a specific or enumerated number of specialists, "the CBA and the Pennsylvania School Code[1] clearly identified that a reduction in force (RIF) cannot effect [sic] or reduce the learning methods or opportunities to the arts or other services such as library services[, ] which would be provide[d] by the 'specialists.'" Id. at 6. The arbitrator found that after the full-time high school librarian and half-time elementary art positions were eliminated, art instruction in the elementary school was conducted by regular elementary classroom teachers, but that students were no longer "able to use the library every day in the afternoon, as they had in prior school years," and that the high school "library was only staffed by [a] librarian for one period, the last period, of every school day." Id. at 3.

         With regard to the elimination of the art teacher position, the arbitrator determined that since elementary school art was still being taught by "assigned grade regular elementary teachers within the District, [t]hese regularly assigned elementary teachers may or may not be accomplishing the art objectives of prior years as taught by the specialist then on staff." Id. at 7. The arbitrator noted that the regular elementary teachers "may or may not [have been] certified in elementary art." Id. The arbitrator decided that "even though the reduction of the one-half time [a]rt [p]osition did make some hardships and deficiencies in the [a]rt [e]ducation in the elementary school, the reassignment of those duties" to regular full-time elementary school teachers appeared to "meet the needs of the students and, therefore, the requirements of the [CBA] for staffing." Id. at 8. The arbitrator clarified that his opinion assumed that an art certification is not a statutory requirement for teaching art to elementary school students, but that, if such a certification is required, the requirement was not being satisfied. Id. at 8-9. However, the arbitrator noted there was no testimony presented at the hearing that such a certification is required. Id. at 9.

         Regarding the elimination of the librarian position, the arbitrator determined that "[t]he unrefuted testimony of the [Union]'s witnesses was that the elimination of the high school library position did result in a significant reduction in the number of books being checked out and utilization of the library itself." Id. at 7. The arbitrator explained that "[t]he testimony was that last year in the time period from September through March, there were over 700 books checked out," but that in the same time period for the 2016/17 school year, only 9 books were checked out. Id. The arbitrator concluded this was "a significant reduction in the usage of the facility." Id. The arbitrator also observed that the library was only open and staffed for one period per day. Id. Additionally, he found that in previous years the library developed an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for gifted students, but noted that it was the opinion of the librarian witness that the needs of the gifted students were currently not being met by reassigning the IEP plan development. Id. at 8. The arbitrator also found that the high school librarian previously taught a journalism class for gifted students, which was no longer being offered. Id. The arbitrator determined, however, that in prior years the librarian had performed ancillary duties, such as supervising the yearbook, and that these duties had been reassigned to other staff members. Id.

         Ultimately, the arbitrator concluded that "the [l]ibrary [f]acility and the needs of the student population [were] not being met by the current reduction of the full-time [l]ibrarian position," and that "the needs of the students [were] not being met by reassignment of some of the duties previously performed by the [l]ibrarian or the elimination of some of the other classes or duties that were previously performed by the [l]ibrarian." Id. He also determined that the staff reduction had materially affected the students' needs, that "the current staffing level [did] not meet the specialist requirements of the CBA," and that, therefore, the "current staffing scenario of the [l]ibrarian position [did] not satisfy [the] adequate number of competent specialists requirements" of the CBA. Id. at 9. Accordingly, on May 29, 2017, the arbitrator issued an award that granted the grievance in part. Id. The arbitrator ordered the re-establishment of the full-time librarian position, but upheld the elimination of the art teacher position "provided that there [was] no Elementary Art Certification requirement in the School Code." Id.

         B. The Trial Court's June 25, 2018 Order and Opinion

         The District filed a petition to vacate the arbitration award with the trial court, arguing that the arbitrator exceeded his jurisdiction and that the arbitration award was contrary to law and public policy. On June 25, 2018, the trial court issued an opinion and order vacating the arbitration award and remanding for further proceedings. (Trial court order, 6/25/18.)

         In its opinion in support of its order, the trial court purportedly relied on the "essence test" to conclude that the arbitration award was not rationally derived from the CBA. (Trial court op., 6/25/18, at 5.) The trial court determined that the arbitrator's finding "that the CBA did not permit a reduction in the number of specialists to effect [sic] or reduce learning methods or opportunities" did not logically flow from the CBA. Id. Specifically, the trial court noted that the phrase "learning methods and opportunities" was not defined in the CBA and that the parties did not include any language in the CBA that indicated the metric for an effective educational program was an aggregate assessment of the number of learning methods and opportunities provided by specialists. Id. The trial court also observed that the arbitrator did not cite to any specific provision of the CBA as the source of the metric he implemented, but merely made generic references to the CBA and School Code. The trial court concluded that these unspecified references were legally insufficient and that the arbitrator was required to indicate which provisions of the CBA he relied upon to enforce a requirement not expressed in Article IX.A of the CBA. Id. at 6. The trial court also held that the arbitrator's reference to the School Code posed a challenge to its review because it was unclear upon which article of that law the arbitrator relied. Id. The trial court determined that an arbitration award is properly vacated where the arbitrator rests his interpretation on a phrase not contained in the CBA and goes outside the CBA to make his determination. Id.

         The trial court also found that the arbitrator analyzed the presumed educational needs of the District's students, but failed to assess the intent of the parties when they included Article IX.A in the CBA. Id. at 6-7. The trial court concluded that in the absence of a finding by the arbitrator "regarding the parties' intent and the basis for such finding," the trial court could not determine if the arbitrator's discussion of student needs drew its essence from the CBA. Id. at 7 (emphasis in original).

         Finally, the trial court decided that, although the arbitrator found that the elimination of both positions was a RIF through attrition, the arbitrator did not discuss Article XXV of the CBA, which provides, "[r]eductions may occur by attrition or by a drop in student population, provided that the bargaining unit/student ratio as of September 1, 1982 is not increased." Id. (emphasis omitted) (quoting CBA at Art IX.A.) The trial court noted that the arbitrator did not address the teacher/student ratio that was mentioned in the CBA and did not give any consideration to the interplay between Article XXV and Article IX of the CBA. Id. at 8. The trial court explained that the elimination of the two positions may or may not have violated Article XXV, but that the arbitrator appeared to have overlooked this provision Id.

         Accordingly, the trial court concluded that the arbitrator incorrectly construed and applied the CBA. Id. at 9. The trial court decided that because the court "confined its decision to the four corners of the CBA," vacating the arbitration award and remanding for further proceedings was the appropriate remedy. Id. Therefore, the trial court vacated the order and remanded to the arbitrator, directing him to (1) determine the parties' intent as expressed in Article IX of the CBA; (2) specifically identify and cite in any future written decision the portion of the CBA and any outside sources that he relied upon to determine intent; (3) consider whether Article IX.A of the CBA should be read in pari materia with Article XXV of the CBA; and, if so, (4) determine whether the grieved action was permitted or prohibited by a proper interpretation of Articles IX.A and XXV of the CBA. (Trial court order, 6/25/18.)

         C. The Arbitrator's Clarification Letter

         Subsequently, on July 19, 2018, the arbitrator submitted a letter to the trial court in response to the trial court's remand order. (R.R. at 93a.) The arbitrator initially noted that throughout his 40 years as an arbitrator he had been taught the doctrine of "Functus Officio," meaning that a labor arbitration award is complete when issued, and that although the trial court had vacated his award, "[r]emands in labor do not occur with a final order." Id.

         In his letter, the arbitrator reiterated many of the findings from the arbitration award. Additionally, the arbitrator noted that his decision was based on testimony offered during the approximately two-hour hearing and on post-hearing briefs, and that the District's brief only responded to the allegation of violations of Articles I and IX of the CBA. (R.R. at 96a.) He stated that he considered all factors that were discussed in the testimony, but that "[t]here was no testimony or argument presented concerning the intent of the [p]arties in negotiating sessions or any negotiations leading to" the current CBA or the intent behind specific ...


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