Don’t Wait Too Long to Seek Union Modification

Appeal of City of Laconia (New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board)
Appeal of City of Laconia (New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board)
No. 2002-675
Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Since 1956, firefighters, captains and lieutenants have been members of the same collective bargaining unit in Laconia and, until 1996, the captains and lieutenants conducted oral evaluations of firefighters. In 1996, the city and the union agreed that the captains and lieutenants would begin conducting written evaluations of firefighters, but also agreed that the fact that the evaluations would now be written would “not be used to demonstrate management functions on behalf of the lieutenants and captains such as to exclude them from the bargaining unit.”

In 2000, the city petitioned the Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) to modify the bargaining unit to exclude the captains and lieutenants. The PELRB dismissed the city’s petition, the city appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and the Court remanded the case to the PELRB to decide three issues:

  • Whether lieutenants and captains are supervisors as defined in RSA 273-A:8, II;
  • If they are supervisors, whether it is permissible to include them in the same bargaining unit as the firefighters;
  • Whether the city is barred from challenging the make up of the bargaining unit because of laches or some other reason.

The PELRB again dismissed the city’s petition to modify the union, finding that although the lieutenants and captains may be supervisors by virtue of their rank or title, they didn’t have sufficient disciplinary authority to be excluded from the bargaining unit. The PELRB did not consider the laches issue in detail, but said that if the city were allowed to go ahead with its petition, there would be “resulting prejudice” because there were fewer than 10 lieutenants and captains, which is fewer than the minimum number needed to form a collective bargaining unit.

The city again appealed the PELRB’s dismissal of its petition to modify the union, challenging the PELRB’s conclusion that lieutenants and captains were not supervisors, as well as its decision that laches barred the modification petition.

As the Court explained, “Laches is an equitable doctrine that bars litigation when a potential plaintiff has slept on his rights.” Citing well-established case law, the Court said laches “is not a mere matter of time, but is principally a question of the inequity of permitting the claim to be enforced.” The Court considers four factors in determining whether the doctrine of laches bars a claim:

  • The knowledge of the plaintiffs;
  • The conduct of the defendants;
  • The interests to be vindicated; and
  • The resulting prejudice.

In applying the facts to the four laches factors, the Court said the city knew as early as 1975 that the legislature had enacted RSA 273-A:8, II, which says that “persons exercising supervisory authority involving the significant exercise of discretion may not belong to the same bargaining unit as the employees they supervise,” and said that by 1998, the statute and case law should have put the city on notice “that a petition for modification would be in order” but that the city had failed to file one. While delay is only one factor to consider, the Court said, once there is delay, the remaining factors must be considered.

Considering the conduct of the union, the Court said there was no evidence that the union’s actions contributed to the city’s delay. In fact, the Court noted, the union’s conduct indicated that it had sought to limit the supervisory authority of the captains and lieutenants in an effort to preserve the bargaining unit.

The interests to be vindicated, the Court said, include the state’s policy to “foster harmonious and cooperative relations between public employers and their employees,” as articulated in the legislative history of RSA Chapter 273-A. “Excluding captains and lieutenants from the bargaining unit after 27 years and disrupting this ‘self-felt community of interest’ would be inconsistent with the state’s interest in fostering ‘harmonious and cooperative relations between public employers and their employees,” the Court wrote.

Finally, the Court said, the city failed to show that the PELRB’s conclusion that there would be “resulting prejudice” was unlawful or unreasonable considering that the lieutenants and captains would be fewer than 10 in number and, thus, ineligible to form a bargaining unit.

Based on the above analysis, the Court said the PELRB properly dismissed the city’s petition to modify the union by removing the lieutenants and captains from the bargaining unit.