Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Unions

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Court of Appeals Affirms Propriety of Binding Arbitration for Public Employee Unions

     On Friday, September 28, 2012, Maryland’s highest Court issued an opinion confirming that Maryland’s counties can utilize binding interest arbitration as part of their budgeting.  The opinion, Atkinson v. Anne Arundel County, No. 111, September Term, 2011, settles a thirty-five year discussion in Maryland case law surrounding the issue.  The decision is a win not only for the coalition of Anne Arundel County public safety unions that brought suit; it is a win for Maryland public employees generally.

     The essential facts are these.  In 2002 Anne Arundel County voters amended the County Charter by directing the County Council to provide by ordinance for binding arbitration to resolve any impasse in collective bargaining with public safety employees (police and firefighters). The Charter Amendment provided that an interest arbitration award was to be implemented as part of the budget.  A 2003 ordinance implemented the Charter Amendment.  In 2011, the County Council and County Executive sought to cut back the scope of binding arbitration.  The Council passed, and the Executive signed, a bill that amended the 2003 ordinance stating that the Council was not bound to implement, by appropriation, a binding arbitration award.  The bill also provided that, if it was adjudicated invalid, the entire 2003 ordinance, as amended, would be automatically repealed.

      A coalition of public safety unions challenged the 2011 ordinance and sued the County.   The first decision on the issue came from the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County.  The circuit court found in favor of the County.  The court held that the 2002 Charter Amendment was not “charter material” and violated the Maryland Constitution.

     The parties petitioned for the Court of Appeals to take up the issue.  The Court found in favor of the unions.  The Court held that by its plain language, the 2002 Charter Amendment applies to the Council as well as to the Executive.  The 2002 Charter Amendment is valid.  It does not violate the Council’s “law-making” power under the Maryland Constitution.  The provision for binding arbitration is “charter material” because it directs, as a policy matter, a structural change in the budgetary process while leaving the details of the arbitration system to legislation.  For Maryland’s counties, budgeting and appropriating are not “law-making” or legislation. Those functions are implicit in adopting and modifying a charter under the Maryland Constitution.  Lastly, the Court concluded that the “automatic repeal” provision would conflict with and violate the 2002 Charter Amendment, and therefore could not stand.  The opinion overruled a 2010 opinion of the Court of Special Appeals which had called into doubt binding arbitration for county employees.

      The coalition of public safety unions was represented by Joel Smith and Kahn, Smith and Collins, P.A.  Mr. Smith has been practicing labor law for more than thirty years.  He is been particularly active in appellate practice and legislation on Maryland’s public employee bargaining laws.

The full-text of the opinions can be found at: http://mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2012/111a11.pdf

Video of the oral argument before the Court of Appeals can be found at: http://mdcourts.gov/coappeals/media/2011/coa20120503case111.wmv