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Negotiations Committee of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union v. Caledonia Central Education Association

Supreme Court of Vermont

February 24, 2018

Negotiations Committee of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union
v.
Caledonia Central Education Association

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Caledonia Unit, Civil Division Elizabeth D. Mann, J.

          Pietro J. Lynn and Sean M. Toohey of Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, P.C., Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Rebecca P. McBroom, Vermont - NEA, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Negotiations Committee of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union (Committee) and Caledonia Central Education Association (Association) dispute whether collective bargaining negotiations between a school board negotiation committee and a teachers' association constitute "meetings" under the Open Meeting Law and, if so, whether those meetings may be held in executive session. The Caledonia Superior Court dismissed Committee's complaint seeking declaratory relief for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We reverse the dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and hold that Vermont's Open Meeting Law does not apply to labor negotiations between a school district negotiating committee and a labor union.

         ¶ 2. By way of background, the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union School Board created Committee to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the local bargaining unit of CCSU's support staff, Association. Association is an affiliate of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, a national labor union. On November 14, 2016, Committee met with Association to engage in labor negotiations during a duly warned public meeting. The session was dedicated to negotiations over the ground rules that would govern future negotiations concerning employment of CCSU support staff. The meeting was held in open session, meaning open to the public. During the meeting, Committee and Association considered whether the ground rules should require that future substantive negotiations between the two should be held in executive session, a meeting from which the public is excluded.

         ¶ 3. Generally, meetings of a public body subject to the Open Meeting Law are open to the public. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(1). As an exception to this general rule, Open Meeting Law provides procedures for entering executive session, a "session from which the public is excluded." 1 V.S.A. § 313(a). In relevant part, § 313(a)(1)(A) and (B) specify that "[a] public body may not hold an executive session except to consider . . . contracts [or] labor relations agreements with employees, " and only "after making a specific finding that premature general public knowledge would clearly place the public body or a person involved at a substantial disadvantage." Id. § 313(a)(1)(A), (B). The public body has discretion over the parties and persons permitted to attend executive meetings. Id. § 313(b).

         ¶ 4. Regarding the issue of whether their negotiations should continue in executive session, Committee and Association took divergent views. Association requested that negotiations concerning a new collective bargaining agreement, including compensation and benefits for support staff, be held in executive session. Association also stated that Committee's requirement that all future negotiation sessions regarding collective bargaining agreements be held in public constituted an unfair labor practice, and that Association would not engage in negotiations over any topic unless Committee agreed to hold negotiations in executive session. After ten minutes of discussion in open session, Committee moved to caucus in executive session. Committee went into executive session, deliberated, then came out of executive session and announced that it did not see a basis to negotiate in executive session except when sensitive issues needed to be discussed.

         ¶ 5. Association took issue with Committee's decision for two reasons. First, Association contended Committee entered executive session without making a specific finding that premature public knowledge of the topic to be discussed-whether to hold future negotiations between Committee and Association in executive session-put either party at a substantial disadvantage, as required by the Open Meeting Law. 1 V.S.A. § 313(a)(1). Second, Association reiterated that Committee's unilateral decision that future bargaining occur in public constituted an unfair labor practice. Association declined to proceed with negotiations in open session, the meeting ended, and Association subsequently refused in writing to negotiate any subjects until Committee agreed to negotiate in executive session.

         ¶ 6. On December 8, 2016, Committee filed its complaint for declaratory relief in the Caledonia Superior Court seeking a declaration that, under the Open Meeting Law, Committee is required to hold its meetings in public absent a finding that premature public knowledge puts either party at a substantial disadvantage pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 313(a)(1). In its answer on February 13, 2017, Association moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and absence of a justiciable controversy. Association claimed the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because the Vermont Municipal Labor Relations Act governs the parties' relations and the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) is the proper entity to resolve the issue.[1] On the absence of justiciable controversy claim in the superior court, Association asserted that Committee refused to assess whether bargaining in public would put itself or a person (Association) at a substantial disadvantage prior to entering executive session, and therefore did not follow the statutorily prescribed procedure. Committee opposed the dismissal motion and moved for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that the trial court, not the VLRB, is the appropriate entity to resolve matters related to the Open Meeting Law and that the negotiations were required to be held in open session.

         ¶ 7. On April 10, 2017, the trial court issued a single-paragraph entry order granting Association's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The decision referenced and adopted a previous decision issued by the Franklin Superior Court, [2] which presented a similar, but not identical, dispute. In dismissing the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the court did not address Committee's motion for judgment on the pleadings. Committee timely appealed the trial court's decision, challenging the dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and squarely presenting the issue-whether negotiations between Committee and Association are "meetings" under the Open Meeting Law, and therefore subject to Open Meeting Law requirements. Committee does not suggest any material facts are in dispute to resolve this issue and seeks a remand with instructions to the trial court to enter judgment on the pleadings in its favor.

         I. The Merits of This Case are Ripe for Review by This Court

         ¶ 8. We review the trial court's dismissal of Committee's complaint for declaratory judgment for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, as well as questions of statutory interpretation, de novo. See Rheaume v. Pallito, 2011 VT 72, ¶ 2, 190 Vt. 245, 30 A.3d 1263 ("Dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Civil Rule 12(b)(1) is reviewed de novo . . . ."); Stowell v. Action Moving & Storage, Inc., 2007 VT 46, ¶ 9, 182 Vt. 98, 933 A.2d 1128 (applying de novo review to question of statutory interpretation).

         ¶ 9. The trial court incorrectly determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the matter at hand; contrary to the court's findings, it had jurisdiction to consider the parties' claims because: (1) the issue was ripe-the parties' positions and interests were concrete, clear, and adverse;[3] and (2) Committee's complaint for declaratory judgment squarely raised the issue of the applicability of the Open Meeting Law, which is within the purview of the court. See V.R.C.P. 57 (implementing statutory declaratory judgment procedure); 12 V.S.A. § 4711 (outlining scope of declaratory judgment). "The purpose of a declaratory judgment is to provide a declaration of rights, status, and other legal relations of parties to an actual or justiciable controversy." Doria v. Univ. of Vt., 156 Vt. 114, 117, 589 A.2d 317, 319 (1991) (quotation omitted). Without the presence of an actual or justiciable controversy, "a declaratory judgment is merely an advisory opinion which [the court] lack[s] the constitutional authority to render." Id. Therefore, declaratory relief is only available "when a party is suffering from the threat of actual injury to a protected legal interest." Id. (quotation omitted).

         ¶ 10. When reviewing dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, we "tak[e] all uncontroverted factual allegations of the complaint as true and constru[e] them in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Travelers Indem. Co. v. Wallis, 2003 VT 103, ¶ 7, 176 Vt. 167, 845 A.2d 316. The civil division, including the superior court here, is Vermont's court of general jurisdiction. 4 V.S.A. § 31(1). Thus, the court presumptively has jurisdiction over the declaratory judgment action here, pursuant to 12 V.S.A. § 4711. Association implies there is a statutory exception to the court's authority-or that the court should abstain from asserting its general subject matter jurisdiction-when the subject of the issue at hand is within the scope of the VLRB's statutory authority. While the Legislature has specifically authorized the VLRB to adjudicate certain claims, such as unfair labor practice claims, the labor laws do not broadly provide that all matters relating to labor relations are solely within the purview of the VLRB. 21 V.S.A. § 1727. This is not to say the VLRB may not properly consider the Open Meeting Law in its decision-making process. There may be many instances when the VLRB is called upon to consider the Open Meeting Law in the context of a labor dispute. However, the Open Meeting Law also has potential application in numerous circumstances not involving labor relations, which remain within the court's jurisdiction; such is the case here.

         ¶ 11. Here, the court was the appropriate body to address Committee's claim for declaratory judgment because the question at hand-a legal question posed by parties facing the threat of actual injury to a protected legal interest-is not excepted from the court's general jurisdiction and is encompassed within the declaratory judgment provisions.[4] Because the matter is ripe and because the Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the claim for declaratory judgment seeking interpretation of the Open Meeting Law, the lower court erred in granting the motion to dismiss.

         ¶ 12. Ordinarily, the determination that a motion to dismiss was improperly granted would result in a remand for consideration of the merits of the claim. However, Committee has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and Association has filed nothing indicating any disputed issues of fact or matters outside the pleadings necessary for determination of the central question-whether the Open Meeting Law applies to labor negotiations between a school district and its teachers. Committee, in particular, has briefed this issue and argued on appeal that this Court should decide that the Open Meeting Law applies to these negotiations. Because this issue presents purely a question of law, which we review de novo, it serves no purpose to remand the matter for determination by the trial court only to have the court's holding appealed again. See Towns v. Northern Sec. Ins. Co., 2008 VT 98, ¶ 16 n.4, 184 Vt. 322, 964 A.2d 1150 (finding it appropriate for Court to address issue not decided by trial court when issue was raised below and was "fully briefed on appeal, " and doing so served the "interest of judicial economy"); Car ...


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