Town of Dracut v. Dracut Firefighters Union

Decision Date01 May 2020
Docket NumberNo. 19-P-14,19-P-14
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Joseph G. Donnellan, Quincy, for the defendant.

Stanley L. Weinberg, Shrewsbury, for the plaintiff.

Present: Agnes, Sullivan, & Blake, JJ.


The Dracut Firefighter's Union, IAFF Local 2586 (union), appeals from a judgment entered in the Superior Court vacating an arbitration award in favor of the town of Dracut (town). The award arose from a grievance filed after the chief of the Dracut Fire Department (fire department) implemented a new policy preventing on-duty firefighters assigned to the east and west fire stations from attending union meetings at the central fire station. The arbitrator found that the chief's decision to impose a ban on travel by on-duty firefighters to union meetings at the central fire station from the east and west stations violated the parties' collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The Superior Court judge vacated the arbitration award on the ground that it exceeded the arbitrator's authority by infringing on the nondelegable authority of the chief. See G. L. c. 48, § 42 ; G. L. c. 150C, § 11 (a) (3). We reverse.

Background. We summarize the facts found by the arbitrator, which are binding on a reviewing court. See Pittsfield v. Local 447 Int'l Bhd. of Police Officers, 480 Mass. 634, 637-638, 107 N.E.3d 1137 (2018) ; School Comm. of Lexington v. Zagaeski, 469 Mass. 104, 105 n.3, 12 N.E.3d 384 (2014).1

The fire department is staffed twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week. The union holds meetings on a monthly basis. By necessity, these meetings are scheduled during a shift. Prior to 1986, union meetings were held off-site, at bars or restaurants. In 1986, the parties agreed that, in order to ensure attendance at union meetings by members and union officers assigned to work the shift when the meeting took place, the union would be permitted to hold its meetings at the central station, where the fire department's headquarters is located. This agreement was memorialized in the parties' CBA, Article 20, § 2, which stated that "any meeting either special or regular monthly meeting of [the union] will be allowed to be held at the central station (Sta. 1). Scheduled (unless waived) at least three days in advance with the Chief."

When the parties agreed to this language in 1986, the fire department had two stations: the central station and the west station. In 2000, the fire department opened a third station, the east station. Article 20, § 2, remained in the parties' successor CBAs, apparently unchanged, from 1986 through the 2015-2018 CBA.

From the time the parties agreed to Article 20, § 2, in 1986, until April 6, 2016, the practice of permitting firefighters at the outlying stations (i.e., the west station and the east station) to attend union meetings at central station was consistent. Depending on the shift, each outlying station had a single crew of two or three firefighters on duty. Before leaving for the central station, these crews would call the central station and report to the officer in charge that they were ready to leave for the union meeting. The officer in charge would then inform them if they needed to stay at their assigned station due to "inclement weather or other public safety considerations." If no such circumstances existed, each crew drove the full complement of equipment to which it was assigned to the central station for the duration of the meeting. If any calls for service came in during the union meeting, crews deployed from the central station. The same procedure was used by crews at the outlying stations when they left their stations to go to the central station for other activities, such as inspections, memorial services, public relations activities, training, drills, and for refueling. The chief's ban applied only to union meetings, not the other activities.

On April 6, 2016, the chief informed the union that he would no longer permit on-duty firefighters from the outlying stations to attend union meetings at the central station. He told the union's executive board that he was concerned about potential delays in response times if crews departed from the central station rather than from the outlying stations. Specifically, he stated he was concerned about meeting the fire department's goal of reducing response times to six minutes or less, a goal which the fire department was meeting only 45.8% of the time.2 The chief further suggested that the fire department could work with the union to use videoconferencing technology to permit firefighters from the outlying stations to participate in meetings remotely.3 The chief did not apply this new rule to inspections, memorial services, public relations activities, training, drills, refueling, or like activities at the central station.

The union filed a grievance alleging that the chief's new policy violated Article 20, § 2, and the parties' past practice. The union prevailed at arbitration and the town filed a complaint in Superior Court to vacate the arbitration award. A judge of the Superior Court concluded that the award intruded upon the nondelegable authority of the chief to manage the fire department, particularly with respect to matters of public safety. This appeal followed.

Discussion. This case calls upon us to balance numerous competing policies. The fire department performs an important public safety function, and response time is a matter of public safety. By the same token, the Legislature has declared a public policy in favor of self-organization and collective bargaining. We conclude, under the unique facts of this case, that the public safety interest expressed by this particular policy is not so heavy as to warrant vacating the award on either nondelegability or public safety grounds.

Because the public policy of the Commonwealth strongly encourages both collective bargaining and arbitration, see G. L. c. 150E, § 6 ; School Comm. of Pittsfield v. United Educators of Pittsfield, 438 Mass. 753, 758, 784 N.E.2d 11 (2003), a court may "vacate arbitration awards only in rare, statutorily enumerated circumstances." Pittsfield, 480 Mass. at 637, 107 N.E.3d 1137. See G. L. c. 150C, § 11. Among those circumstances are those in which "[a]n arbitrator ... intrudes upon decisions ... left by statute to the exclusive managerial control of designated public officials." Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n, 477 Mass. 434, 440, 78 N.E.3d 66 (2017), quoting Massachusetts Bd. of Higher Educ./Holyoke Community College v. Massachusetts Teachers Ass'n/Mass. Community College Council/Nat'l Educ. Ass'n, 79 Mass. App. Ct. 27, 32, 943 N.E.2d 485 (2011).4

The judge concluded that the arbitration award was not entitled to deference because it ran afoul of G. L. c. 48, § 42, which sets forth a fire chief's authority over the fire department. The judge determined that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by usurping the chief's nondelegable authority to manage the workforce, and make decisions pertinent to matters of public safety.5 He concluded that this dispute was one which the parties could not lawfully agree to collectively bargain or arbitrate.

1. Nondelegability. The nondelegability doctrine has evolved over time, and it is helpful to revisit its derivation and its current application in order to determine its proper contours in the case before us. Statutes such as G. L. c. 41, § 97A, and G. L. c. 48, § 42, defining the authority of police and fire chiefs, respectively, were adopted long before collective bargaining became a reality for all cities and towns in 1974.6 With the enactment of G. L. c. 150E, collective bargaining imposed new obligations on public sector employers, and public policy questions born of the tensions between G. L. c. 150E and other statutes defining the authority of public officials ensued.7 This tension was particularly acute in the context of public safety, most notably policing. See Massachusetts Coalition of Police, Local 165, AFL-CIO v. Northborough, 416 Mass. 252, 255, 620 N.E.2d 765 (1993).

The Supreme Judicial Court addressed one aspect of these tensions by adopting the nondelegability doctrine.

"Pursuant to G. L. c. 150E, § 6, public employers must ‘negotiate in good faith with respect to wages, hours, standards or productivity and performance, and any other terms and conditions of employment.’ However, from that expansively defined category of mandatory bargaining subjects, we have exempted certain types of managerial decisions that must, as a matter of policy, be reserved to the public employer's discretion.
[I]n instances where a negotiation requirement would unduly impinge on a public employer's freedom to perform its public functions, G. L. c. 150E, § 6, does not mandate bargaining over a decision directly affecting the employment relationship.’ Local 346, Int'l Bhd. of Police Officers v. Labor Relations Comm'n , 391 Mass. 429, 437 (1984). See Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen's Ass'n , 403 Mass. 680, 684 (1989) ; Burlington v. Labor Relations Comm'n , 390 Mass. 157, 164 (1983) ; Lynn v. Labor Relations Comm'n , 43 Mass. App. Ct. 172, 178–179 (1997). [T]he inquiry has been directed towards defining the boundary between subjects that by statute, by tradition, or by common sense must be reserved to the sole discretion of the public employer so as to preserve the intended role of the governmental agency and its accountability in the political process. Id. at 178 . [T]he crucial factor in determining whether a given issue is a mandatory subject of bargaining is whether resolution of the issue at the bargaining table is deemed to conflict with perceived requirements of public policy.’ Greenbaum, The Scope of Mandatory Bargaining Under Massachusetts Public Sector Labor Relations Law, 72 Mass. L. Rev. 102, 103 (1987)."

Worcester v. Labor Relations Comm'n, 438 Mass. 177,...

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