In a newly released decision that may interest public employers, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that binding interest arbitration awards under the Municipal Employee Relations Act (“MERA”) are not subject to applications to confirm an arbitration award.
In the case Brass City Local, CACP v. City of Waterbury, the city and its police union had been unable to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. In such circumstances, MERA mandates that the parties enter into binding interest arbitration in which an arbitration panel chooses between the parties’ final proposals on each open issue. After this process concluded and the arbitration panel issued its award, neither party sought to vacate or modify the award in court. Pursuant to the terms of MERA, the arbitration award effectively became the parties’ new collective bargaining agreement.
Subsequently, a dispute arose as to whether the police officers were entitled under the arbitration award to receive retroactive pay for extra duty assignments. The union first filed a prohibited practice complaint with the State Board of Labor Relations alleging that the city had repudiated the agreement by not paying retroactive extra duty pay. That complaint was eventually dismissed by the Labor Board because at most the union had alleged a mere breach of the agreement, which should have been addressed through the contractual grievance process.
While the Labor Board case was pending, the union also filed an application to confirm the arbitration award in Superior Court. A state statute permits applications to confirm arbitration awards in certain circumstances, and the court’s confirmation of the award would render it “final and binding” so that it can be enforced in court.
The issue that was ultimately addressed by the Supreme Court was whether the application to confirm procedure could apply to an interest arbitration award under MERA. After analyzing the statutes, the Court held that the union’s application was improper. First, the Court stated that the application to confirm procedure only applied where the parties had an agreement to arbitrate an issue – for example, as in a contractual grievance process. With binding interest arbitration, the arbitration proceeding is statutorily imposed by MERA, not agreed to by the parties. Second, the Court noted that MERA expressly addressed applying to vacate or modify an arbitration award but did not mention confirming an award. The Court interpreted this as legislative intent not to permit confirming an arbitration award. Third, the Court recognized that MERA already states that an interest arbitration award is final and binding, meaning that there is no need to confirm the award to achieve that result.
The takeaway for municipal employers is that disputes over the interpretation of an interest arbitration award should be addressed through the contractual grievance procedure, just as with any issue arising from a collective bargaining agreement. If the dispute satisfies the narrow grounds for a repudiation claim, the Labor Board may be appropriate. But the court system is not the appropriate forum to raise such issues.
This case addressed only the interest arbitration provisions of MERA and should not be taken as applying to other public sector collective bargaining statutes. For example, the Teacher Negotiation Act (“TNA”), which applies to public school teachers and administrators, specifically refers to applying to confirm an interest arbitration award. The Court’s reasoning in this case therefore would likely not prevent an application to confirm an award under the TNA.