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Appeal of New England Police Benevolent Association, Inc.

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

November 6, 2018

APPEAL OF NEW ENGLAND POLICE BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION, INC.; APPEAL OF STATE EMPLOYEES' ASSOCIATION OF NEW HAMPSHIRE, INC., SEIU, LOCAL 1984 (New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board)

         Public Employee Labor Relations Board

          Argued: May 9, 2018

          Nolan | Perroni, P.C., of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts (Peter J. Perroni on the brief and orally), for petitioner New England Police Benevolent Association, Inc.

          Glenn R. Milner, of Concord, by brief, and Nolan | Perroni, P.C., of North Chelmsford, Massachusetts (Peter J. Perroni orally), for petitioner State Employees' Association of New Hampshire, Inc., SEIU, Local 1984.

          Gordon MacDonald, attorney general (Jill A. Perlow, assistant attorney general, on the brief and orally), for the respondent.

          HANTZ MARCONI, J.

         The petitioners, the New England Police Benevolent Association, Inc. (NEPBA) and the State Employees' Association of New Hampshire, Inc., SEIU, Local 1984 (SEA), appeal a decision of the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) dismissing their unfair labor practice complaints filed against the respondent, the State of New Hampshire. We affirm.

         The parties stipulated to, or the record supports, the following facts. The SEA, the NEPBA, the Teamsters Local 633 (Teamsters), the New Hampshire Troopers Association (NHTA), and the New Hampshire State Police Command Staff of the New Hampshire Troopers Association are individual unions that, together, represent approximately 50 separate state employee bargaining units. In December 2016, those five unions began negotiating with the State on successor contracts under RSA 273-A:9, I (2010), which requires unions representing state employees to negotiate with the State as a "bargaining committee" on "[a]ll cost items and terms and conditions of employment affecting state employees." The first session was an organizational meeting, where the parties identified spokespersons, discussed bargaining schedules, reviewed, revised, and signed "ground rules," and discussed and agreed upon the order in which each of the five unions would make "proposal presentations" to the State.

         After several bargaining sessions, the State rejected all wage proposals, explaining that "the Governor was not offering any wage increases . . . given anticipated increases in prescription drug costs in the healthcare market." As a result, on March 7, 2017, the Teamsters and the NHTA declared an impasse. See RSA 273-A:1, VI (2010) (defining "impasse" as the parties' failure, "having exhausted all their arguments, to achieve agreement in the course of good faith bargaining, resulting in a deadlock in negotiations").

         Although no other unions declared an impasse, the State took the position that all five unions must proceed to impasse mediation. See generally RSA 273-A:12 (Supp. 2017) (setting forth the procedures the parties must use when they have reached an impasse in negotiations, including mediation and fact-finding by a neutral third party). The SEA challenged the State on this position, and subsequently, the petitioners each filed complaints with the PELRB. During the pendency of these complaints, the State advised all five unions that it would select a mediator and continued to assert that all of the unions must participate in impasse mediation "because the issues to be resolved affected all bargaining units."

         The PELRB consolidated the petitioners' complaints and found in a 2-1 vote that RSA 273-A:9, I, "requires all five unions to utilize the Union Committee format at the bargaining table and during impasse resolution proceedings until such time as the common terms and condition[s] of employment are settled." Based upon that determination, the PELRB found: (1) the State was "entitled to insist that the five unions continue to adhere to the Union Committee format in the event one or more unions declares a bargaining impasse" in negotiating common costs, terms, and conditions; and (2) the unions have the obligation to "coordinate with each other" to determine whether the bargaining committee will engage with the State at the bargaining table or in impasse resolution proceedings. The PELRB, therefore, dismissed the complaints and ordered the petitioners to coordinate with the other unions "to determine the forum in which negotiations will go forward." The petitioners unsuccessfully moved for rehearing, and this appeal followed.

         "RSA chapter 541 governs our review of PELRB decisions." Appeal of Nashua Sch. Dist., 170 N.H. 386, 391 (2017) (quotation omitted); see RSA 273-A:14 (2010). "Pursuant to RSA 541:13 (2007), we will not set aside the PELRB's order except for errors of law, unless we are satisfied, by a clear preponderance of the evidence, that it is unjust or unreasonable." Nashua Sch. Dist., 170 N.H. at 392 (quotation omitted). "The PELRB's findings of fact are presumed prima facie lawful and reasonable." Id. (quotation omitted); see also RSA 541:13. "In reviewing the PELRB's findings, our task is not to determine whether we would have found differently or to reweigh the evidence, but, rather, to determine whether the findings are supported by competent evidence in the record." Nashua Sch. Dist., 170 N.H. at 392 (quotation omitted). "We review the PELRB's rulings on issues of law de novo." Id. (quotation omitted).

         On appeal, the petitioners argue that the PELRB erred in finding that RSA 273-A:9, I, requires the unions to remain in the bargaining committee format, and acted unlawfully or unreasonably when it dismissed the petitioners' complaints. They assert that the PELRB's interpretation of RSA 273-A:9, I: (1) contradicts the plain language of the statute; and (2) leads to an absurd result. Because the petitioners challenge the PELRB's ruling on an issue of law, the court reviews the PELRB's decision de novo. Id.

         Resolution of this issue requires that we interpret the language of the pertinent statutes. See Appeal of Laconia Patrolman Assoc., 164 N.H. 552, 555 (2013). "Although the PELRB's findings of fact are presumptively lawful and reasonable and will not be disturbed if supported by the record, we are the final arbiters of legislative intent as expressed in the words of a statute considered as a whole and will set ...


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