A trial judge did not err in ordering the arbitration of grievances filed on behalf of two union members who were fired from their nursing jobs, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
In Registered Nurses, et al. v Hurley Medical Center (Docket No. 343473), the plaintiffs, Billie Jo Busby and LeaAnn Frank, were both nurses employed by the defendant, Hurley Medical Center. The plaintiffs, who were members of the Registered Nurses and Registered Pharmacists Union (RNRPh), both called off work on May 11, 2017. The defendant fired the plaintiffs in June 2017 for allegedly striking on that day, in violation of Article 36 of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the union and the defendant. The union filed grievances challenging the firings and requested arbitration pursuant to the CBA. The defendant denied the grievances and the arbitration request.
The plaintiffs then filed this action in Genesee County Circuit Court to compel arbitration, claiming the defendant had breached the CBA. The trial court granted summary disposition for the plaintiffs and ordered the disputed be arbitrated.
The Court of Appeals affirmed in a published opinion.
“Contrary to defendant’s assertion, … Article 36 [of the CBA] does not require a disputed matter of fact; rather, it provides that the grievance procedure is available regarding ‘matters of fact,’” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Whether Busby and Frank were striking or were sick … is a matter of fact that must be resolved by the arbitrator pursuant to Article 36 of the CBA.”
Further, any doubt as to whether this question is arbitrable “must be resolved in favor of arbitration,” the Court of Appeals held. “Therefore, the trial court did not err by granting summary disposition in favor of plaintiffs on the basis that the CBA required arbitration of the issue.”
The defendant appealed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition for the plaintiffs.
On appeal, the defendant argued the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because a public employee’s exclusive mechanism to challenge strike-related discipline is to request a hearing under § 6 of the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA) (MCL 423.201, et seq.).
“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals said. “In this case, plaintiffs’ complaint sought to compel arbitration and alleged breach of the CBA. The arbitrability of an issue is a question for the court to decide. … [T]he issue of whether a party breached a CBA involves the interpretation of a contract, which is a question of law that is decided by a court. … Accordingly, given the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint, the circuit court had subject-matter jurisdiction over this case.”
Given that the trial court had the right to exercise judicial power over the case, the defendant’s claim that PERA prohibited arbitration was not a question of subject-matter jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals explained. “Rather, it is a question of statutory interpretation, which is also a question of law that could be decided by the trial court, and that we review de novo.”
Therefore, the Court of Appeals looked to § 6 of PERA, MCL 423.206, which says in part: “ … (2) Before a public employer may discipline or discharge a public employee for engaging in a strike, the public employee, upon request, is entitled to a determination under this section as to whether he or she violated this act. …”
To support its subject-matter jurisdiction argument, the defendant cited Lamphere Schools v Lamphere Federation of Teachers, 400 Mich 104 (1977). In Lamphere, the Michigan Supreme Court held that, based on the language of § 6, “the statutorily permitted discipline-discharge should be the unitary and exclusive remedies available to public employers in dealing with illegal strikes by public employees in violation of the PERA’s Section 2 strike prohibition.” Accordingly, the Lamphere Court concluded the plaintiff school district could not sue the defendant teachers’ union for damages under traditional common-law tort theories.
However, “[c]ontrary to defendant’s claim that Lamphere stands for the proposition that ‘a public employee’s “exclusive” mechanism to challenge strike-related discipline is to request a § 6 hearing under PERA,’ Lamphere addressed and expressly referred to the exclusive remedy available to public employers,” the Court of Appeals said. “The Court did not discuss the remedies available to employees or unions and, thus, that decision does not bar plaintiffs’ request for arbitration in this case. Similarly, the plain language of § 6 provides only that an employee is entitled to a determination under that section; it does not limit the remedies available to employees or unions.”
The defendant also asserted the trial court erroneously granted summary disposition because the plaintiffs failed to state an arbitrable claim under the CBA and did not offer any admissible evidence to support their motion.
“Again, we disagree,” the Court of Appeals said, noting that MCR 2.116(C)(7) was the proper ground for summary disposition in this case because the parties had entered into a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement.
While the defendant claimed there was no disputed matter of fact for the arbitrator to resolve, the plaintiffs alleged there was a question of fact as to whether Busby and Frank called off work on May 11, 2017, for an illness or to engage in a strike.
“Contrary to defendant’s assertion, however, Article 36 does not require a disputed matter of fact; rather, it provides that the grievance procedure is available regarding ‘matters of fact,’” the Court of Appeals observed. “Whether Busby and Frank were striking or were sick, as alleged in plaintiffs’ complaint, is a matter of fact that must be resolved by the arbitrator pursuant to Article 36 of the CBA. Although defendant may present to the arbitrator undisputed evidence that plaintiffs were engaged in a strike, the question of fact is for the arbitrator to decide.”
In addition, “any doubt regarding whether this question is arbitrable must be resolved in favor of arbitration,” the Court of Appeals said. “Therefore, the trial court did not err by granting summary disposition in favor of plaintiffs on the basis that the CBA required arbitration of the issue.”