Cape Elizabeth School Bd. v. Cape Elizabeth Teachers Ass'n

CourtSupreme Judicial Court of Maine (US)
Citation435 A.2d 1381
Decision Date23 October 1981

Jensen, Baird, Gardner & Henry, Nicholas S. Nadzo (orally), Merton G. Henry, Michael A. Nelson, Portland, for plaintiff.

Sunenblick, Fontaine & Reben, Howard T. Reben (orally), Stephen P. Sunenblick, Portland, for defendant.


WATHEN, Justice.

This appeal is brought by the Cape Elizabeth School Board from a declaratory judgment determining a grievance arbitrable and requiring the Board to submit to binding arbitration its decision to dismiss Martin Burke, a teacher in the Cape Elizabeth School system. We find that this case is controlled by the Uniform Arbitration Act (hereinafter the Act), 14 M.R.S.A. §§ 5927-5949 (1980), rather than the Declaratory Judgments Act, 14 M.R.S.A. §§ 5951-5963 (1980). We therefore deny the appeal and remand with instructions to dismiss the action.

In February 1978 Martin Burke was dismissed by the Cape Elizabeth School Board under 20 M.R.S.A. § 473(4) (1965). 1 The Cape Elizabeth Teachers Association, which had negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the Board on behalf of its members, filed a grievance alleging that Burke's dismissal was without just cause. The Board rejected the grievance, and the Association submitted the dispute over the dismissal to arbitration.

In March 1978, plaintiff filed this complaint for declaratory judgment seeking a declaration that (1) defendant could not proceed to arbitration for the dismissal of a teacher under 20 M.R.S.A. § 473(4), (2) the section of the collective bargaining agreement providing for binding arbitration of grievances involving the discharge of a teacher on continuing contract is unlawful and unenforceable. The complaint also sought orders restraining defendant from enforcing the disputed provision and staying any arbitration proceedings until a final judgment was entered. A motion to stay arbitration was filed at the same time and granted in May, 1978. A motion for summary judgment on the complaint was filed and granted, but on motion for reconsideration under Rule 59(e) M.R.Civ.P. the court denied the summary judgment. In March 1980 the court issued a declaratory judgment ordering a dissolution of the stay of arbitration on the grounds that the disputed provision in the collective bargaining agreement was enforceable and could not be construed to exclude from arbitration the dismissal of a teacher under Section 473(4). The Board appeals from the declaratory judgment.

Plaintiff School Board contends that its appeal is properly before this Court because a declaratory judgment, under 14 M.R.S.A. § 5959, is a final judgment which is appealable to the Law Court. We find, however, that while a declaratory judgment is appealable, that action is an inappropriate vehicle for determining the arbitrability of a dispute and for securing a stay of arbitration in this case.

Section 5927 of the Uniform Arbitration Act, as adopted in Maine in 14 M.R.S.A. §§ 5927-5949 (1980), provides that the Act applies "to arbitration agreements between employers and employees or between their respective representatives, unless otherwise provided in the agreement." The scope of the Act in Maine was discussed in Maine School Administrative District # 5 v. Maine School Administrative District # 5 Teachers Ass'n., Me., 324 A.2d 308 (1974), in which it was determined that in the area of grievance arbitration, as distinguished from interest arbitration, the Act controlled appellate review.

"It appears unmistakable that the 1969 Legislature intended the Uniform Arbitration Act to replace the older law and to offer its exclusive procedures for obtaining grievance arbitration under all valid labor agreements and for the enforcement of awards thus obtained. (emphasis added)


"The issue is not entirely clear, but our analysis of the language used by the Legislature convinces us that it was intended that the parties to municipal public employees grievance disputes were left to the arbitration machinery provided by the Uniform Arbitration Act and to that Act's appellate review procedure as well." Id. at 311, 312. (emphasis in original)

Given this affirmation of the coverage of the Act and the absence of language to the contrary in the collective bargaining agreement, we must conclude that in the instant case of grievance arbitration, the plaintiff has mistakenly sought relief under the Declaratory Judgments Act for a matter which is properly within the ambit of the Uniform Arbitration Act.

The same conclusion is reached by a consideration of the proper use of the action for declaratory judgment. Resolution of the present dispute would arguably accomplish one of the purposes of the Declaratory Judgments Act by permitting an actual controversy to be settled before it had ripened into a breach of contractual duty. See 2 Field, McKusick & Wroth, Maine Civil Practice, § 57.1 at 45 (2d ed. 1970), quoting 3 W. Barron & A. Holtzhoff, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1262 (1950). However, the acceptance of jurisdiction over the action for declaratory judgment rests in the sound discretion of the justice, and should be exercised only when "the court is convinced that by adjudication a useful purpose will be served." Jones v. Maine State Highway Comm'n., Me., 238 A.2d 226, 228 (1968) (quoting E. Borchard, Declaratory Judgments 29 (1941)). Permitting questions of arbitrability to be raised in actions for declaratory judgment serves to impede rather than facilitate the process of arbitration. The Act provides two separate avenues for determining the arbitrability of a particular dispute: on a motion to compel or stay arbitration under 14 M.R.S.A. § 5928(1), (2), or on a motion to vacate the arbitrator's award under § 5938(1)(E). See Westbrook School Comm. v. Westbrook Teachers Ass'n., Me., 404 A.2d 204, 207 (1979). The statutory structure, which under Section 5945 of the Act provides appeals from denials of motions to vacate, but not from denials of stays of arbitration, is designed to accomplish the prompt resolution of disputes without undue judicial interference. See Cutler Associates, Inc. v. Merrill Trust Co., Me., 395 A.2d 453, 457 (1978). Permitting motions for stays of arbitration to be determined in appealable actions for declaratory judgment undercuts this goal by presenting new opportunities for court interference and delay in the dispute resolution process. The motion for a stay of arbitration in the initial stages of the process could become an instrument of delay if the parties were allowed to seek a stay by means of a declaratory judgment as opposed to the summary and...

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