The D.C. Office of the Attorney General hit a major snag today in its attempts to keep a labor dispute with city workers out of the courts.
Ignoring protests from the city’s lawyers, Judge Jeanette Clark of the D.C. Superior Court said she had jurisdiction to hear arguments between the D.C. government and the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1403 over an arbitration award.
Last July, an arbitrator sided with the union in a dispute stemming from a collective bargaining agreement. The city argues that the decision violates several local statutes, and has yet to formally agree to it.
The union filed suit asking the court the enforce the award, and today, lawyers for both sides met to argue whether the court had the right to hear the case. By the end of the hearing, the government’s arguments had left the judge nothing short of incredulous.
The city’s thinking, as presented by Assistant Attorney General Frank McDougald, went something like this: Before a court can hear arguments over a decision under the collective bargaining agreement, the mayor has 45 days to review the terms and decide whether they are legal. Before the mayor can do his review, the agreement has to be signed by the city’s attorney general. So far, Attorney General Peter Nickles has yet to put his signature on the arbitration award. Therefore, McDougald said, Mayor Adrian Fenty has not had a chance to do his review, and the court can’t hear the case.
Arguing on behalf of the union, D.C. solo-practitioner Charles Both noted that the issue at hand was a binding arbitration ruling, not a bargaining agreement. He added that by the city’s logic, Nickles could choose not to sign the decision indefinitely, leaving the ruling in limbo.
“It’s an end run around our ability to put a contract into force,” Both said.
Judge Clark agreed, declaring that the city’s approach would leave the dispute “in Never-Never Land.”
“Unless you come up with something else, I do not see how this court lacks jurisdiction,” she told McDougald. “There was a final binding arbitration. There was an award issued. And the only recourse the union could have is to come to this court. Just as the District has when it was dissatisfied with an award.”