Missouri Court of Appeals Overrules Labor Board

The Missouri Court of Appeals has ruled that the state’s Board of Mediation erred when it refused to consider a petition by the Professional Fire Fighters of Eastern Missouri, International Association of Fire Fighters, IAFF Local 2665 to establish a bargaining unit for captains in the City of Richmond Heights. The Board and a lower court concluded that the “Contract Bar Rule” prohibited Local 2665 from seeking to organize the captains.

The contract bar rule essentially holds that a union cannot petition the Board to reconsider the appropriateness of a bargaining unit while a valid collective bargaining agreement is in effect. The contract bar rule provides a narrow window of opportunity for a union to do so. In this case, the Missouri Board of Mediation limited petitions for appropriate bargaining unit determination to be filed between 90 days and 61 days prior to the expiration of a CBA.

That narrow time frame would appear to be more in the nature of a bureaucratic annoyance that a major obstacle. However, the real-life problem is that the Board requires that an election be held before it would even consider changing an existing bargaining unit. The dilemma and the union’s efforts to resolve the problem was explained by the Court of Appeals:

  • In October 2021, the Local filed a Petition for Unit Clarification with the Board, seeking to expand the certified bargaining unit of fire department employees to include captains.
  • The Board dismissed the Local’s petition without prejudice pursuant to the “contract bar rule.”
  • The Board’s contract bar rule provides that “petitions to the State Board of Mediation are untimely if the bargaining unit subject to the petition is covered by an active labor agreement, unless the petition is filed no earlier than 90 days and not later than 61 days before the termination of the agreement.”
  • In dismissing the Local’s petition, the Board explained that “a valid agreement exists between [the City’s] Fire Department and [the Local],” “[t]he term of the agreement is for a year period which is in effect until April 21, 2022,” and that “being the case, the agreement acts as a bar to any election until the ‘open window’ period which is January 22, 2022 to February 20, 2022.”
  • On January 17, 2022, the Local again filed a Petition for Unit Clarification with the Board, seeking to expand the certified bargaining unit to include captains.
  • The Board again dismissed the petition without prejudice pursuant to the contract bar rule, as the “open window” period did not begin until January 22nd.
  • On February 11, 2022—within the “open window” period—the Local re-filed its Petition for Unit Clarification.
  • This time the Board dismissed the petition with prejudice on the grounds that the petition violated the “Wallace-Murray Rule, which prohibits adding previously excluded employees to the unit without an election.”
  • On March 10, 2022, the Local filed a Petition for Certification of Representation with the Board, “requesting an appropriate unit consisting of Fire Captains.”
  • Attached to the petition was the required “showing of interest”—a form that listed the names of three fire captains and stated that these captains “desire[d] to have the [Local] as their exclusive bargaining representative.”
  • [O]n May 3, 2022, the Board dismissed the Local’s petition with prejudice pursuant to the contract bar rule, finding that “a valid agreement exist[ed] between the City of Richmond Heights Fire Department and the IAFF Local 2665” and that agreement was “active and will remain active until April 21, 2023.”

This interpretation left Local 2665 without a way to organize the captains. An appeal to Cole County Circuit Court resulted in a ruling in favor of the city. Local 2665 filed an appeal to the Missouri County of Appeals arguing, among other things, that the board’s position was arbitrary and capricious. The Court of Appeals agreed with Local 2665:

  • [T]he Local argues that the Board’s decision was “not supported by substantial and competent evidence in the record, as it was arbitrary and capricious,” in that it “ignores the clear intent of the Local’s petition seeking to become the exclusive bargaining representative of only captains.”
  • The Local argues the Board “inexplicably relie[d] upon the ‘contract bar’ rule to dismiss the Local’s Petition, when the existing MOU does not include the position of Captain in its defined bargaining unit.”
  • We agree, and find this point dispositive.
  • The Local’s Petition for Certification of Representation only “request[ed] an appropriate unit consisting of Fire Captains,” with the Local being the captains’ exclusive bargaining representative.
  • The captains are not covered under the existing MOU; in fact, they are expressly excluded from the bargaining unit described in the MOU, and thus the MOU does not apply to them and cannot bar them from seeking to create their own bargaining unit and obtain representation.
  • In dismissing the Local’s petition pursuant to the contract bar rule, the Board presumably construed the petition as a request to add captains to the existing bargaining unit of employees covered by the MOU.
  • While the Local had previously sought to add captains to that bargaining unit, and while the Local’s ultimate goal in the future may be to add captains to that bargaining unit, the Petition for Certification of Representation that was before the Board did not seek such relief, and only requested a separate bargaining unit of captains and to have the Local certified as that unit’s exclusive bargaining representative.
  • The contract bar rule should not have applied to the Local’s Petition for Certification of Representation.
    For these reasons, we find that the Board’s dismissal of the Local’s Petition for Certification of Representation based on the contract bar rule was arbitrary and unreasonable.
  • In so holding, we express no opinion as to how the Board should resolve the Local’s petition, only that dismissing it pursuant to the contract bar rule was erroneous.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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