SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNAT. UNION, LOCAL 1021 v. COUNTY OF SAN JOAQUIN No. C066861.
202 Cal.App.4th 449 (2011)
SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION, LOCAL 1021, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. COUNTY OF SAN JOAQUIN, Defendant and Respondent.
Court of Appeals of California, Third District.
Filed December 28, 2011.
Matthew P. Dacey, Deputy County Counsel, for Defendant and Respondent.
Service Employees International Union, Local 1021 (SEIU), appeals from the trial court's denial of its petition to compel respondent San
SEIU contends the County agreed to arbitrate disciplinary actions in an MOU between the parties. SEIU further argues that Riedinger's acceptance of retirement benefits did not divest the arbitrator of power to hear the matter.
We conclude that the County and SEIU agreed in the MOU to arbitrate disciplinary actions for employees who elect arbitration instead of a hearing with the civil service commission. Rather than having "jurisdiction" over a claim as do courts or administrative tribunals, an arbitrator has a contractually granted power to decide a matter consistent with the parties' agreement. Here, Riedinger's application for retirement benefits did not constitute a waiver of his right to arbitrate and did not deprive the arbitrator of power to decide the disciplinary action (employment termination). Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order denying the petition to compel arbitration.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
MOU Between the County and SEIU
In an MOU dated December 12, 2006, the County and SEIU agreed to various terms and conditions regarding the employment of members of the Trades, Labor, and Institutional Bargaining Unit. The MOU addresses disciplinary actions against SEIU employees as follows:
The concluding paragraph of the MOU states: "20.
Prior to termination of his employment, Riedinger worked as a "Craft Worker III" in the County's facilities management division. In that capacity, Riedinger was represented by SEIU. According to the County, Riedinger stole approximately $250 worth of County-owned recyclable material in November 2008. Riedinger admitted the theft to his supervisor and then had four days of unexcused absence from his job.
A Skelly hearing was held on February 10, 2009. On February 18, 2009, the County issued an order of dismissal terminating Riedinger from employment.
On February 20, 2009, SEIU, on behalf of Riedinger, informed the County's director of human resources that it was "requesting Arbitration for the decision to uphold the discipline of termination that was received by . . . Riedinger . . . ."
In March 2009, Riedinger filed an application for service retirement that was approved with an effective date of February 23, 2009. In April 2009, Riedinger started to receive monthly retirement allowance payments.
More than a year passed before the County sent notice to arbitrator David Gaba on May 5, 2010, to inform him: "We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected by our County Counsel and the law firm [representing SEIU] as the arbitrator to hear" the matter of Riedinger's termination from employment. A week later, the County informed the arbitrator that the matter would be heard on August 13, 2010, in Stockton, California.
On July 26, 2010, county counsel informed Riedinger's attorney "that due to . . . Riedinger's retirement during the pendency of his termination appeal, San Joaquin County will not participate in the scheduled arbitration. [¶] Although this matter was set for arbitration with [David] Gaba on August 13,
On July 28, 2010, the arbitrator sent an e-mail to the County and SEIU that stated he was unsure of his authority under the MOU and the San Joaquin County Civil Service Rules. He concluded that "the best course is for one of the parties to file an action to compel arbitration or an action for declaratory relief."
On August 13, 2010, SEIU filed a petition to compel arbitration under Code of Civil Procedure section 1281.2. The County opposed the petition.
The trial court denied the petition on two grounds. First, the court concluded that "[t]he MOU does not contain an agreement between the County and its former employees to arbitrate employment disputes. A party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute that the party has not agreed to submit." Second, the trial court found that "SEIU [has] not explained how an arbitrator appointed pursuant to the MOU or the Civil Service Rules would have jurisdiction over the employment rights of a former County employee who has retired." Even so, the court "express[ed] no view on whether Riedinger has a viable civil claim on the termination of his employment with the County."
SEIU timely filed a notice of appeal from the denial of the petition to compel arbitration. (See Code Civ. Proc., § 1294, subd. (a) [allowing appeal from denial of petition to compel arbitration].)
Standard of Review
We review de novo the question of whether parties agreed to submit a dispute for binding arbitration. (Nyulassy v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2004)
Agreement to Arbitrate Disciplinary Actions
SEIU contends the trial court erred in concluding that the County did not agree to arbitrate disciplinary actions with SEIU members such as Riedinger. We agree.
A. Principles of Arbitration
Once the parties have agreed to arbitrate, the scope of the matter to be decided by the arbitrator is delineated by the parties' agreement. "The right to arbitration depends upon the terms of the contract—a petition to compel arbitration is simply a suit in equity seeking specific performance of that contract. [Citations.]" (United Public Employees v. City and County of San Francisco (1997)
B. MOU Between the County and SEIU
As paragraph 20 of the MOU in this case declares, the MOU constitutes an agreement between the County and SEIU. In paragraph 19.7, the MOU
The County and SEIU could have agreed to make the civil service commission the exclusive forum for an SEIU member's appeal after a Skelly hearing. (See, e.g., United Public Employees, supra, 53 Cal.App.4th at p. 1031 ["While there is `a strong policy in favor of enforcing agreements to arbitrate, . . . there is no policy compelling persons to accept arbitration of controversies which [as here] they have not agreed to arbitrate . . . .'"].) However, the MOU clearly shows that the County and SEIU agreed to allow union employees to elect binding arbitration for the appeal of their disciplinary actions.
Consistent with paragraph 19.7 of the MOU, SEIU timely elected to arbitrate the matter of Riedinger's termination from County employment. The County responded by cooperating with SEIU in selecting the arbitrator and the time for the arbitration hearing. The parties' actions confirmed that the MOU constitutes an agreement to arbitrate disciplinary actions upon timely election by the employee. Accordingly, the trial court erred in concluding that the MOU does not constitute an agreement to arbitrate disciplinary actions between the County and its employees who are represented by SEIU.
The County next contends the MOU did not constitute an agreement to arbitrate disciplinary actions because "[t]he MOU applicable here clearly states that disciplinary proceedings shall be governed by Civil Service Rule 18, not an independent contractual right to binding arbitration." The County
As we have explained, the MOU constituted an agreement between the County and SEIU that allowed union employees to elect to arbitrate their disciplinary actions. The MOU's borrowing of procedures for selecting the arbitrator and having the arbitration award ratified by the appropriate authority does not mean that the right to arbitrate was not contractual.
Nothing in rule 18 undermines the contractual nature of the right to arbitrate disciplinary actions under the MOU. We note that, in the trial court, the County admitted that "Civil Service Rule 18 applies to Union members who are in [the County's] employ, to the extent that such Rule does not conflict with a term contained in [the MOU]. Article 20 of [the MOU] contains a supersession clause, which provides that if language of the Memoranda, Resolutions, Board Orders or such other terms and conditions of employment not specified in the MOU conflict[s] with, or is different from, the language contained in the MOU, the MOU shall prevail and apply." (Italics added.) Thus, the provisions of the MOU prevail over any conflict with rule 18.
In summary, the MOU constitutes an agreement between the County and SEIU to arbitrate disciplinary actions at the election of union members. Here, the arbitration was properly initiated by SEIU and the County signaled the legitimacy of the election by selecting the arbitrator and scheduling the hearing. Thus, the trial court erred in concluding that the MOU did not contain an agreement to arbitrate the County's termination of Riedinger's employment.
Effect of Retirement on Contractual Right to Arbitrate
SEIU contends the trial court erred in concluding that Riedinger's application for retirement benefits defeated his right to arbitrate the matter of his termination by the County. The contention has merit. We conclude that Riedinger's retirement did not constitute a waiver of his right to arbitrate and did not deprive the arbitrator of jurisdiction.
A. Whether Retirement Waived the Contractual Right to Arbitrate
The California Supreme Court has stated that "while there is no `single test' for establishing waiver, `the relevant factors include whether the party seeking arbitration (1) has "previously taken steps inconsistent with an intent to invoke arbitration," (2) "has unreasonably delayed" in seeking arbitration, (3) or has acted in "bad faith" or with "willful misconduct."' (Keating [v. Superior Court (1982)
In determining whether a party has surrendered its right to arbitrate, we must "`closely scrutinize any claims of waiver [citations] and "`indulge every intendment to give effect to [arbitration] proceedings.' [Citations.]" Moreover, the burden of proof is "heavy" and rests on the party seeking to establish waiver [citations] which "is not to be lightly inferred." [Citations.]'" (Christensen, supra, 33 Cal.3d at p. 782, quoting Keating v. Superior Court, supra, 31 Cal.3d at pp. 604-605.)
In this case the question is whether Riedinger's subsequent retirement constituted a waiver of his right to arbitrate his dispute regarding the propriety of his termination of employment. The County does not assert that Riedinger knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to arbitrate. Instead, the County asserts that Riedinger's application for and receipt of retirement benefits had the effect of defeating his earlier election to arbitrate.
Consistent with our high court's guidance in Christensen, we consider whether Riedinger (or SEIU on his behalf) took steps inconsistent with an intent to invoke arbitration, unreasonably delayed in seeking arbitration, or
First, we examine whether Riedinger acted in a manner inconsistent with the arbitration. The California Supreme Court has given three examples of conduct inconsistent with an agreement to arbitrate. (Davis v. Blue Cross of Northern California (1979)
The other factors to be considered under Christensen are inapplicable. Riedinger did not unreasonably delay in demanding arbitration or act in bad faith with respect to the arbitration. (See Christensen, supra, 33 Cal.3d at p. 782.) To the contrary, SEIU—on behalf of Riedinger—requested arbitration within the time specified in the MOU. The record indicates that Riedinger and SEIU acted in good faith in working with the County to select an arbitrator and a date for the hearing. Only the County indicated a refusal to arbitrate. We find no basis for concluding that Riedinger waived his right to arbitration.
B. Whether Retirement Deprived the Arbitrator of Jurisdiction
The County argues the trial court correctly concluded that the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction over the disciplinary action (employment termination) due to Riedinger's subsequent retirement. In so arguing, the County relies on County of Los Angeles Dept. of Health Services v. Civil Service Com. of County of Los Angeles (2009)
In County of Los Angeles, a staff nurse with the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services sought a hearing by the civil service commission on her appeal of a suspension and notice of the county's intent to discharge her. (County of Los Angeles, supra, 180 Cal.App.4th at pp. 394-395.) The nurse retired before the commission rendered its final decision, and the county moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. (Ibid.) The commission issued a decision in favor of the nurse, and the county sought mandamus relief in the superior court. (Id. at pp. 395-396.) The trial court granted the county's writ petition, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. (Id. at pp. 394, 396.) Relying on an earlier case (Zuniga v. Los Angeles County Civil Service Com. (2006)
The holding in County of Los Angeles that a retirement divests the civil service commission of jurisdiction was not applied by the Fifth Appellate District in Hall-Villareal v. City of Fresno (2011)
As the California Supreme Court has noted, "`"[T]he powers of an arbitrator are limited and circumscribed by the agreement or stipulation of submission."'" (Moncharsh, supra, 3 Cal.4th at p. 8, quoting O'Malley v. Petroleum Maintenance Co. (1957)
The County next argues that Riedinger's retirement rendered him a "former employee" who was no longer covered by the MOU. The County reasons that, as a former employee, Riedinger had no arbitral rights under the MOU. We disagree. Riedinger was no longer an employee once the County terminated his employment. It was his termination by the County that separated him from employment so that he became eligible to collect retirement benefits. Riedinger's application for retirement benefits did not forsake any of his rights under paragraph 19.7 of the MOU.
Accordingly, the trial court erred by denying SEIU's petition to compel arbitration of Riedinger's employment termination dispute with the County.
The order denying Service Employees International Union, Local 1021's petition to compel arbitration is reversed. Appellant Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, shall recover its costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(1).)
BLEASE, Acting P. J., and ROBIE, J., concurred.
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