Updated at 2:47 p.m.
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals has denied the union representing attorneys in the city's Office of the Attorney General the right to seek a court order enforcing an arbitration award in a dispute with management.
The ruling is a setback for American Federation of Government Employees Local 1403, which had successfully sought an order from the D.C. Superior Court to compel management to recognize sections of a new collective bargaining agreement that an arbitrator had awarded in the union’s favor.
But the appellate judges, in a written decision (PDF) released today, ruled that the local statute governing city-agency labor negotiations already has remedies in place for arbitration disputes. As a result, they wrote, the union could not try to enforce the agreement by suing under another law, the city’s Uniform Arbitration Act, in Superior Court.
Union president Steven Anderson said he was disappointed in the decision, but is hopeful that under the new leadership of Acting Attorney General Irvin Nathan, they can reach a resolution. The three-year collective bargaining agreement that was under litigation in this case expired late last year, and negotiations are underway over new, three-year agreements for both compensation and non-compensation.
“[Nathan] has made overtures in trying to settle the whole package,” Anderson said.
The union was represented on appeal by Betty Grdina of Washington’s Mooney, Green, Saindon, Murphy & Welch and solo practitioner Charles Both.
Ariel Waldman, senior counsel to the attorney general, said in a written statement this afternoon that while the ruling provided "important clarification" for how arbitration disputes should be resolved in the future, he is also hoping negotiations over the current agreements won't reach that point.
"We have for months been negotiating in good faith with the union to find a resolution acceptable to each party and we have assured the union that we will continue to do so in the wake of the court’s helpful clarifying decision," Waldman said.
The union and management entered into negotiations when non-compensation sections of the old collective bargaining agreement expired in September 2007. The union wanted more input into promotion, suspension and firing decisions, according to the appeals court decision, but when the two sides couldn’t agree on new terms, the issue went before an independent arbitrator.
The arbitrator ruled in September 2008 in favor of the union. When the union asked then-Attorney General Peter Nickles to sign the arbitration award, according to the appeals court, Nickles refused, maintaining that the arbitrator’s decision was not binding because only the mayor had final say over the agreement.
The union filed an application in Superior Court seeking enforcement of the arbitration award. In July 2009, Judge Jeanette Clark ruled in favor of the union, ordering the attorney general’s office to recognize the arbitration award. The city appealed, claiming the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the issue.
The appellate judges found that the Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, which governs labor negotiations, gives the Public Employees Relations Board exclusive jurisdiction to enforce arbitration awards both in grievance cases – where a dispute arises from an existing collective bargaining agreement – or interest cases, such as this one, which stem from negotiations over a new agreement.
In a footnote, the judges noted that the union had asked the appellate court to find the non-compensation collective bargaining agreement binding because it felt it had no other remedies.
“While AFGE’s frustration is understandable regarding the length of time that has passed since the expiration of the non-compensation CBA, we are not persuaded by AFGE’s legal argument,” the judges wrote, noting that the union had yet to exhaust other administrative options for enforcement.