A court of appeal recently held that a trial court erred in staying the administrative proceedings before the Public Employment Relations Board (“PERB”) that involved an unfair practices charge. The charge was brought by a municipal employees association alleging that a city had engaged in an unfair labor practice when it did not satisfy meet and confer requirements before placing a voter initiative involving pension reform on the ballot. (San Diego Municipal Employees Association v. The Superior Court of San Diego County (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., June 19, 2012).
Three citizens gave notice to the City of San Diego (“City”) in April 2011 that they intended to circulate a petition to have a Comprehensive Pension Reform Initiative (“CPRI”) placed on the ballot. The CPRI contemplated an amendment to City’s Charter that would alter pension benefits for certain City employees. The San Diego Municipal Employees Association (“MEA”) made demands on City to engage in meet and confer procedures. MEA asserted that “the meet and confer procedures applied to the CPRI because the CPRI was a ‘sham device’ used by City officials to circumvent the meet and confer obligations imposed on City by the [Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (“MMBA”)].” City rejected MEA’s demands on the ground that the CPRI is a citizen initiative rather than a City-sponsored initiative and therefore the MMBA’s meet and confer requirements do not apply.
In November 2011, the registrar of voters certified that sufficient signatures had been collected to place the CPRI on the ballot. In January 2012, City passed an ordinance to place it on the June 5, 2012, ballot. MEA filed an unfair practices charge (“UPC”) against City with PERB alleging that City had engaged in an unfair labor practice when it failed to satisfy the MMBA’s meet and confer requirements before placing the CPRI on the ballot. MEA also requested injunctive relief. PERB issued a complaint alleging City violated the MMBA. PERB also filed an action in superior court seeking, among other relief, an order to temporarily enjoin City from presenting the CPRI to voters in June 2012.
The trial court rejected PERB’s motion to enjoin City from placing the CPRI on the ballot. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) scheduled an administrative hearing for April 2012. City asked the trial court to stay the administrative hearing and quash the subpoenas issued by the ALJ. The trial court granted City’s motions and the MEA filed a writ proceeding seeking to vacate the order of the trial court that enjoined the administrative proceedings.
The issue before the court of appeal was whether the trial court’s order which stayed the administrative proceedings was proper. The court of appeal held that it was not.
In 2000, the Legislature extended PERB’s jurisdiction to cover matters that arise under the MMBA. A complaint which alleges an MMBA violation must be processed as an unfair practice charge by PERB. PERB has exclusive jurisdiction over the initial determination of whether an unfair practice charge is justified and the appropriate remedy for the unfair practice. The Legislature removed initial jurisdiction over MMBA unfair practice charges from the courts and vested exclusive jurisdiction with PERB.
The meet-and-confer requirement of the “MMBA requires governing bodies of local agencies to ‘meet and confer [with employee representatives] in good faith regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment’ and to ‘consider fully’ such presentations made by the employee organizations.” An agency’s refusal or failure to meet and confer in good faith is an unfair practice. The issue of whether an employer’s refusal to satisfy its alleged meet and confer obligation amounts to an unfair labor practice is within PERB’s exclusive jurisdiction.
City asserted that because this case involves a dispute over its elected officials’ free speech rights, it falls outside PERB’s exclusive initial jurisdiction. The court rejected this argument. The mere fact that constitutional rights may be implicated is not enough to divest PERB of its initial jurisdiction. If City is not satisfied by the ALJ’s decision, it may seek review of that decision by appealing to PERB and then the court of appeal, if necessary.
City failed to show that it is excused from exhausting its administrative remedies. It did not show that it would be futile to pursue the administrative process. City asserted PERB’s action in superior court “showed the outcome of the administrative process was certain.” The court rejected this argument finding that just because PERB sought a temporary injunction to preserve the status quo does not mean that PERB will not be neutral when it hears the merits of the UPC.
The court also rejected City’s claim that PERB lacks authority to resolve the dispute between the parties. The question of whether City violated its meet and confer obligation falls directly within PERB’s jurisdiction. City does not dispute that if it had placed the CPRI directly on the ballot without satisfying its obligation to meet and confer, it would have engaged in conduct that the MMBA prohibits. The MEA alleges that although the CPRI appears to be a citizen initiative, City actually used strawmen to get the CPRI on the ballot to avoid its MMBA obligations. The court found that because the UPC alleges activity that is arguably prohibited by public employment labor law, PERB has initial exclusive jurisdiction. The court found that “the fact City may have significant legal arguments militating against a finding that the CPRI violated the MMBA does not deprive PERB of the authority to rule on those arguments.”
The court also rejected City’s argument that it is excused from exhausting its administrative remedies because the administrative process is too slow, which renders the administrative remedy inadequate. City fails to show how the use of the administrative process would cause greater delay than litigation of the matter through the trial court.
City may present all of its statutory and legal arguments for resolution in the administrative forum. PERB did not forfeit its initial jurisdiction when it filed the case in the superior court to enjoin City from presenting the CPRI to the voters. The superior court action was filed to aid the administrative proceedings and preserve the status quo pending the resolution of the UPC in the administrative proceeding. The court found that this was a proper use of the powers granted to PERB.
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