West Chester firefighter lawsuit can continue, judge rules

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

A Butler County Common Pleas Court judge has ruled a lawsuit over the cost-saving “traveling lieutenants” policy filed by West Chester Twp. will proceed against its firefighter’s union.

The township sued its fire union in June, asking the court to uphold a state arbitrator’s decision allowing it to hire three traveling lieutenants to save about $230,000 in overtime and stop continued “moot grievance” filings.

Overtime costs for fire lieutenants were skyrocketing over the past several years, so township officials decided to create the role of “traveling lieutenant” to fill in as needed. The idea was to hire/promote three people to fill in when full-time staff are vacationing, on medical leave or other absences The lieutenants are members of the union along with firefighter, EMTs and paramedics.

The union filed two grievances over the new policy. The township denied the grievances, it went to arbitration, and the township won because it has the power to determine staffing needs. The union continued to file grievances every time a traveling lieutenant was deployed and wanted each denial to go to arbitration. There were 103 issued as of the lawsuit filing and 78 more by late August.

The township is asking Haughey to confirm the arbitrator’s decision, declare the continuing grievances on this issue moot, dismiss them and prevent them from going to arbitration and that the township has no obligation to bargain the matter with the union.

The union asked Haughey to dismiss the lawsuit because the township is asking the court to approve things that are beyond the scope of the arbitrator’s award, he denied the request on Friday.

“This court based on the arbitrator’s finding of undisputed facts that: ‘The board has the authority to determine the size and composition of the workforce, and, the minimum number of LTs (lieutenants) and FFs (firefighters) assigned to a shift has been always a management determination,’ must conclude the board presents sufficient facts entitling it to proceed,” Haughey wrote.

The judge said he need not make any findings on the merits of the case at this juncture.

The union’s attorney Bennett Allen told the Journal-News “we’re disappointed but not surprised, it’s pretty difficult to prevail on a motion to dismiss, but I think the court clearly recognizes the argument that we’re making, that there’s a clear distinction between what the arbitrator’s award provides and what the township is asking the court to confirm.”

The union also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the State Employment Relations Board claiming “the township unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment” by utilizing the traveling lieutenants. SERB dismissed the complaint stating “the charge is dismissed with prejudice for lack of probable cause to believe the statute has been violated.”

The union asked for reconsideration and SERB denied the request. They filed a second SERB complaint over the township declaring the subsequent grievances moot. SERB ruled a week ago the township did not violate any laws because they agreed the arbitrator’s decision applies to future grievances pertaining to the same issue.

Allen said he doesn’t understand how they could have reached that conclusion, given neither side was allowed to present evidence or witnesses on the issue. The township provided Haughey with the latest SERB decision but Allen said it shouldn’t matter.

“I don’t think what SERB said is at all relevant to the question which we say is before the court,” Allen said. “That is can the court confirm an award that wasn’t provided for by an arbitrator.”

The township generally does not comment on pending litigation but did give the Journal-News this statement about the lawsuit previously.

“Our organization values all of the dedicated servant leaders who provide exceptional service to the residents of the community. At the same time, our organization is obligated and committed to being responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars,” Wilson said. “The ability to balance these two responsibilities can be challenging at times and can sometimes require legal action be taken to address disagreements.”

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