• Exclusive Representative Could Not Circumvent Arbitration Requirement by Alleging a Violation of the Education Code
  • November 19, 2010 | Authors: Diana D. Halpenny; Christian M. Keiner
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In California Teachers Association and Salinas Elementary Teachers Council v. Governing Board of the Salinas City Elementary School District, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 6 Dist., July 14, 2010), the Sixth District Court of Appeal considered whether employee associations were required to exhaust the grievance/arbitration procedures contained in a collective bargaining agreement before filing a lawsuit to enforce a statute. The court of appeal held that the associations were required to exhaust the grievance/arbitration procedures before resorting to the courts.

    The Salinas Elementary Teachers Council (“SETC”) is a local chapter of the California Teachers Association (“CTA”). CTA and SETC (collectively, the “Association”) brought a lawsuit against the Salinas Elementary School District (“District”) asserting that the District’s interpretation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (“Agreement”) created teacher pay disparities in violation of the salary uniformity requirements of Education Code section 45028.

    The Agreement also provides for a five-step grievance resolution process that culminates in binding arbitration if the grievance is not resolved at an earlier step. A “grievance” is defined in the Agreement as “a written claim by a grievant that a controversy, dispute or disagreement of any kind exists arising out of or in some way involving an alleged misinterpretation, misapplication, or violation of” the CBA. A “grievant” is defined in the Agreement as “[a]n employee or group of employees or SETC, provided an employee(s) has been adversely affected.”

    In April 2008, SETC sent a letter to the District asserting that the methods agreed to for advancement on the schedule and for the freezing of advancements on the schedule created salary uniformity violations of Education Code section 45028. SETC requested that the District take actions to correct the salary uniformity violations and to compensate the union members affected. The District declined to take any such steps.

    The Association bypassed the five-step grievance resolution process articulated in the Agreement, choosing instead to file suit against the District. The trial court agreed with the District that the Association failed to plead exhaustion of the grievance process and dismissed the Union’s lawsuit.

    The appellate court affirmed, holding that: (1) the dispute between the parties fell within the broad definition of “grievance” under the Agreement; and (2) arbitrators are allowed to interpret, and apply statutes and that therefore (3) the Association was required to exhaust the Agreements grievance arbitration procedures.

    The court of appeal concluded that when the bargaining agreement has an express grievance and arbitration mechanism, the presence of a statutory issue does not allow a party to bypass arbitration unless it can be said “with positive assurance” that the contract clause is not susceptible to an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute.

    What This Means To You
    If the grievance language in your collective bargaining agreement is sufficiently broad, employee associations may be required to pursue the grievance procedures to completion, even if the dispute involves interpretation of a statute.