Merolla v. City of Providence, C.A. No. PC/03-5440 (RI 8/11/2004)

Decision Date11 August 2004
Docket NumberC.A. No. PC/03-5440
PartiesJOHN A. MEROLLA v. CITY OF PROVIDENCE; STEPHEN T. NAPOLITANO, in his capacity as Treasurer of the City of Providence; MELODY JOHNSON, in her capacity as Superintendent of Schools, Providence School Department; and OLGA N. NOGUERA, GENE BURNS, BIENVENIDO GARCIA, MARY McCLURE, LEONARD L. LOPES, MAKNA MEN, ADEOLA A. OREDOLA, MILTON HAMOLSKI, and DILANIA INOA, in their official capacities as members of the PROVIDENCE SCHOOL BOARD; and EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT BOARD OF RHODE ISLAND
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court

RUBINE, J.

This matter comes before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment. At issue is the correct interpretation of the provisions of G.L. 1956 § 16-16-24 insofar as it pertains to the post-retirement employment of teachers in coaching positions. The Plaintiff has filed a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in connection with a decision made by the Employees' Retirement Board of Rhode Island (hereinafter "the Retirement Board") that the aforesaid statute, as amended, bars the Plaintiff, a retired teacher, from continuing to fill the job as Head Football Coach at Mt. Pleasant High School in Providence, Rhode Island. In reliance on the Retirement Board's interpretation of § 16-16-24, the Providence School Board (hereinafter "the School Board") dismissed Plaintiff from his coaching position.

Facts and Travel

The following facts are set forth in a written stipulation of the parties, and therefore are undisputed. In 1967, John Merolla (hereinafter "Plaintiff") began his career as a physical education teacher for the Providence School Department. In addition to his career as a teacher, the Plaintiff also began coaching football in the system in 1968, and in 1987 Plaintiff was appointed as Head Football Coach at Mt. Pleasant High School. In 1999, Plaintiff retired from his position as physical education teacher at Mr. Pleasant but remained the Head Football Coach. Although not contained in the written stipulation of facts, Plaintiff states that during the entire continuous period he served as coach and thereafter head coach, he was never required to reapply for the position, and his appointment never lapsed. (See Merolla Aff. ¶¶ 6 and 7). The Defendants have filed no affidavit to contradict this fact.

Plaintiff is covered under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) in place between the Providence School Department and the Providence Teachers' Union. Article 11 of the CBA provides:

"11-9 Any teacher presently holding a position shall retain the position without the necessity of reapplying based upon the teacher's seniority rights under the collective bargaining agreement.

* * *

11-13 Any teacher hired as a coach prior to July 1, 1999 and who continues to coach sport(s) shall be allowed to retain no more than two of said coaching positions at the time of retirement.

11-14 Any teacher who is hired as a coach as of July 1, 1999 or thereafter will not be eligible to continue to coach upon retirement."

Between the months of May through August 2003, Plaintiff engaged in the customary activities to prepare for the upcoming football season. Plaintiff's first official day of work as Head Football Coach for that season was August 15, 2003, the day he passed out equipment. However, on August 20, 2003, Donald Zimmerman, a member of the School Department's Human Resources Division, summoned the Plaintiff to his office and informed him that effective immediately, Plaintiff could no longer serve as Head Football Coach due to the provisions of G.L. 1956 § 16-16-24(b). That statute provides in pertinent part:

"(b) Any teacher or athletic coach certified pursuant to chapter 11.1 of this title who has retired under the provisions of any law of this state may be employed to fill a vacant position (including, but not limited to, employment as a tutor, mentor principal or mentor assistant principal) by any state school or public school of this state for a period of no more than ninety (90) days in any one school year without any forfeiture of or reduction in the retirement benefits and allowances he or she is receiving or may receive as a retiree. Notice of the employment shall be sent monthly to the state retirement board by the employer and by the retired teacher. Provided, however, that no employment may be offered to a retiree subject to this section after July 1, 2002, unless the employer has made a good faith effort each school year to fill the position with a nonretired employee without success, and certifies in writing that it has done so to the employees' retirement system, and to the bargaining agents of all education unions with whom the employer has collective bargaining agreements."

Subsequent to his removal from the position of Head Football Coach, Plaintiff filed this action against the City of Providence, Superintendent Melody Johnson, the Providence School Department and its individual members, and the Employees' Retirement Board of Rhode Island seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.1 Plaintiff is asking this Court to declare that the actions that led to his firing were in breach of the CBA and were not mandated by § 16-16-24. Additionally, Plaintiff requests injunctive relief preventing the Defendants from permanently removing him from the position of Head Football Coach.2

The Plaintiff has filed a motion for summary judgment in this matter along with a supporting memorandum, affidavits, and exhibits. The Retirement Board has filed a cross motion for summary judgment, also supported by a memorandum and exhibits.

Although the Plaintiff may have had the right to seek an administrative hearing before the Retirement Board, he has chosen to seek declaratory relief in this Court. This Court is generally reluctant to exercise its jurisdiction to hear and determine a dispute prior to the Plaintiff having exhausted his administrative remedies. See Rhode Island Employment Security Alliance v. Department of Employment and Training, 788 A.2d 465 (R.I. 2002). However, insofar as the declaratory judgment sought herein relates to a matter of statutory construction, the Superior Court has the discretion to exercise its jurisdiction notwithstanding the failure of the Plaintiff to exhaust an administrative avenue of redress through the administrative channels of the Retirement Board. See Town of Tiverton v. Fraternal Order of Police, 372 A. 2d 1273, 1275 (R.I. 1977).3

Standard of Review

"Summary judgment is a proceeding in which the proponent must demonstrate by affidavits, depositions, pleadings and other documentary matter . . . that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and that there are no genuine issues of material fact." Palmisciano v. Burrillville Racing Association, 603 A.2d 317, 320 (R.I. 1992) (citing Steinberg v. State, 427 A.2d 338 (R.I. 1981); Ludwig v. Kowal, 419 A.2d 297 (R.I. 1980)); Super. Ct. R. Civ. P. Rule 56(c). When the moving party sustains its burden "[t]he opposing parties will not be allowed to rely upon mere allegations or details in their pleadings. Rather, by affidavits or otherwise, they have an affirmative duty to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact." Bourg v. Bristol Boat Co., 705 A.2d 969 (R.I. 1998) (citing St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co., v. Russo Brothers, Inc., 641 A.2d 1297, 1299 (R.I. 1994)).

During a summary judgment proceeding "the court does not pass upon the weight of credibility of the evidence but must consider the affidavits and other pleadings in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Palimisciano, 603 A.2d at 320 (citing Lennon v. MacGregor, 423 A.2d 820 (R.I. 1980)). Thus, the only task of a trial justice in ruling on a summary judgment motion is to determine whether there is a genuine issue concerning any material fact. Id. (citing Steinberg v. State, 427 A.2d 338 (R.I. 1981); Ludwig v. Kowal, 419 A.2d 297 (R.I. 1980)). Therefore, "when an examination of the pleadings, affidavits, admissions, answers to interrogatories and other similar matters, viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, reveals no such issue, the suit is ripe for summary judgment." Industrial Nat'l Bank v. Peloso, 397 A.2d 1312, 1313 (R.I. 1979) (citing Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank v. Boiteau, 376 A.2d 323 (R.I. 1977)).

Analysis

It is Plaintiff's contention that the Providence School Department, in its decision to terminate him as Head Football Coach, followed an erroneous interpretation of state law, causing a violation of Plaintiff's alleged right to continue in his incumbent position as he would have under the CBA as applied and understood by the parties.

Although the Retirement Board does not contest that the terms of the CBA at least impliedly provide for the Plaintiff's continued employment as a coach after his retirement from his teaching position, it contends that the provisions of the CBA cannot be enforced in the face of what the Retirement Board believes to be the contrary provisions of state law. It is the Retirement Board's contention that the prohibitions contained § 16-16-24 apply to any person who has retired as a teacher, regardless of whether or not the teacher has continued in his or her coaching position. The Board asserts that this interpretation of § 16-16-24 is most consistent with the legislature's intent in enacting § 16-16-24.

It is well settled in Rhode Island that statutory law preempts contrary contract provisions. In State of Rhode Island v. Rhode Island Alliance of Social Services Employees, 747 A.2d 465, 469 (R.I. 2000), the Rhode Island Supreme Court declared:

"[A]pplicable state employment law trumps contrary contract provisions, contrary practices of the parties, and contrary arbitration awards. Thus, if a statute contains or provides for nondelegable and/or nonmodifiable duties, rights, and/or obligations, then neither contractual provisions nor...

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