151 A.3d 301 (R.I. 2016), 2015-332-Appeal, Pontarelli v. Rhode Island Board Council on Elementary and Secondary Education

Docket Nº:2015-332-Appeal
Citation:151 A.3d 301
Opinion Judge:Suttell, Chief Justice
Party Name:Paul E. Pontarelli v. Rhode Island Board Council on Elementary and Secondary Education et al
Attorney:For Plaintiff: Michael J. Jacobs, Esq., Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq. For Defendants: Anthony F. Cottone, Esq., Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.
Judge Panel:Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Case Date:December 21, 2016
Court:Supreme Court of Rhode Island

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151 A.3d 301 (R.I. 2016)

Paul E. Pontarelli


Rhode Island Board Council on Elementary and Secondary Education et al

No. 2015-332-Appeal

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 21, 2016

Providence County Superior Court. (PC 15-928). Associate Justice Richard A. Licht.

For Plaintiff: Michael J. Jacobs, Esq., Jeffrey D. Sowa, Esq.

For Defendants: Anthony F. Cottone, Esq., Paul V. Sullivan, Esq.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


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Suttell, Chief Justice

The plaintiff, Paul E. Pontarelli, appeals from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the defendants, the Rhode Island Board Council on Elementary and Secondary Education (the council) and the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE) (collectively, defendants). The plaintiff, an attorney who is employed as a hearing officer for RIDE, alleged that the defendants violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA), as set forth in G.L. 1956 chapter 46 of title 42, by failing to provide adequate notice of a September 8, 2014, council meeting and for its failure to provide any notice of meetings held by the Compensation Review Committee. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we reverse in part and affirm in part the judgment of the Superior Court.


Facts and Procedural History


The Compensation Review Committee

The pertinent facts in this case are not in dispute. In 2011 or 2012 the council created a Compensation Review Committee (CRC), which was to convene to review

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requested and proposed salary adjustments for RIDE employees. The CRC is composed of six RIDE employees: the three division chiefs, the chief of staff, the human resources coordinator, and the deputy commissioner. David Abbott, the deputy commissioner of RIDE and a CRC member, serves as the CRC chairperson. Abbott explained at deposition that membership on the CRC is not by appointment; instead, serving on the CRC is " just an additional task for people that are on the leadership team." He described the CRC as an " informal, ad hoc working group with a strictly advisory role" and with no legal status or authority. Abbott also explained that the CRC does not have regular meetings; rather, it schedules meetings when a CRC member requests one. He attested that notice of the CRC meetings is not provided to the public nor are written minutes kept or taken at CRC meetings. In 2013, the CRC created a charter to set up procedures on how it would operate as a committee.

According to Abbott, the CRC is a working group formed to provide " balance" or consistency in compensation for RIDE positions and to keep the three RIDE division chiefs informed about compensation requests. Instead of individual division chiefs making compensation recommendations for their employees directly to the commissioner, the requests go to the CRC, which then passes the request on to the commissioner.1 Although the CRC initially discussed compensation for RIDE's 146 public employees and new hires, it eventually " broaden[ed] the scope of what [they] were talking about" to also include organization. The CRC began reviewing the creation of new positions in RIDE and the work each division or office should oversee. Because only the commissioner has the actual authority to take personnel actions, the CRC is " strictly advisory" and handles all personnel matters outside the scope of the human resources department.2


Notice of the September 8, 2014 Council Meeting

The council posted notice of a September 8, 2014, council meeting on the Rhode Island Secretary of State's website (the council meeting). As required by G.L. 1956 § 16-60-7(b), RIDE's table of organization, together with pay ranges, needed to be approved by the council.3 Under the " Action Items" subheading of the agenda notice, item " 7.b." stated: " Approval of RIDE's Executive Pay Plan and Organizational Chart." Several spaces to the right of this item description, " Enclosure 7b" was noted. However, the 7b enclosure was not accessible from the Secretary of State's website. The 7b enclosure was a memorandum containing a recommendation from the commissioner of RIDE to the council that the council " approve[] the attached Executive Pay Plan for [fiscal years] 2012, * * * 2013, * * * 2014, * * * 2015 and the Organizational Chart." Attached to the recommendation were the proposed retrospective executive pay plans. The agenda notice for the council meeting was also posted on RIDE's website, where the 7b enclosure

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was accessible. The plaintiff acknowledged that approximately two weeks prior to the September 8, 2014 meeting, he received a copy of the 7b enclosure.

The council meeting was held on September 8, 2014, at which time the council considered and approved the four executive pay plans for fiscal years 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 that had been proposed by RIDE.


Superior Court Proceedings

On March 6, 2015, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint against defendants. The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that the agenda notice " posted by the [c]ouncil for its September 8, 2014 meeting did not provide adequate and proper notice of its action with regard to executive pay plans" and that its consideration and approval of the pay plans violated the OMA (count 1). The plaintiff also alleged that, because the CRC, as a designated committee of RIDE, was a " public body" pursuant to the OMA, RIDE violated the OMA by failing to provide notice or keep and file written minutes of CRC meetings (count 2). In response, on April 7, 2015, defendants filed a joint motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure.

The plaintiff objected to the motion to dismiss and filed a motion for summary judgment. The Superior Court treated both parties' motions as cross-motions for summary judgment, and a hearing was held on June 5, 2015. At the hearing, defendants argued that plaintiff did not have standing to raise his claims. The defendants argued that, because plaintiff had received the 7b enclosure two weeks prior to the council hearing, plaintiff could not be an " aggrieved party" under count 1, and because plaintiff failed to allege how he was injured by the CRC's meetings, he also did not have standing to pursue count 2. In response, and in addition to contending that he did in fact have standing, plaintiff argued that the agenda notice provided by the council was not sufficient because it did not inform the public that more than one pay plan year would be discussed at the meeting. Moreover, plaintiff argued that the OMA covers advisory groups like the CRC and that, consequently, the CRC was required to give notice of its meetings and publish minutes pursuant to the OMA.

At the close of the parties' arguments, the hearing justice issued a bench decision granting defendants' motion for summary judgment. In doing so, the hearing justice did not decide the issue of standing, although he found that " clearly * * * plaintiff had adequate notice because [plaintiff] actually had the [7b] attachment." Instead, the hearing justice found, " in reviewing the totality of the circumstances in this case," that the notice of the September 8, 2014 meeting complied with the OMA because it sufficiently " specifie[d] the nature of the business to be discussed" at the council meeting. The hearing justice also found that the CRC was not a public body and, accordingly, was not subject to the OMA.

Final judgment entered for defendants on June 23, 2015. The plaintiff subsequently filed a timely notice of appeal.


Standard of Review

" This Court examines an appeal from cross-motions for summary judgment de novo." 5750 Post Road Medical Offices, LLC v. East Greenwich Fire District, 138 A.3d 163, 166 (R.I. 2016) (quoting Medical Malpractice Joint Underwriting Association of Rhode Island v. Charlesgate Nursing Center, L.P., 115 A.3d 998, 1002 (R.I.

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2015)). " In reviewing the Superior Court's judgment on the parties' motions for summary judgment, we * * * apply the same standards as those used by the trial court." Id. (quoting Charlesgate Nursing Center, L.P., 115 A.3d at 1002). " Thus, [s]ummary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the [C]ourt determines that there are no issues of material fact in dispute, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id. at 166-67 (quoting Charlesgate Nursing Center, L.P., 115 A.3d at 1002)...

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