Finding that the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA) and a collective bargaining agreement were not mutually exclusive and could coexist, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed a trial court judgment which vacated an arbitration award reinstating an injured employee. Pointing to the parties’ freedom of contract, the state high court concluded that the CBA could provide greater benefits than offered under the state law. As such, a union could pursue reinstatement of an injured worker under the CBA, which allotted a two-year absence, rather than the one-year absence afforded by the WCA. Justice Goldberg, joined by Chief Justice Suttell, filed a separate dissenting opinion (Town of Cumberland v. Cumberland Town Employees Union, May 14, 2018, Indeglia, G.).
The employee at the center of the dispute was a light equipment operator for the city’s highway department. On August 5, 2014, he “rolled” his ankle at work, tearing tendons and ligaments. He required surgery to repair the damage. After encountering numerous health insurance delays, he underwent surgery, but did not return to work while recovering. During his absence, he remained a city employee and continued to pay union dues and health insurance contributions. Throughout his period of leave, he maintained regular contact with the union, as well as the city’s human resources department. At no point did the employer inform him that he should request a leave of absence, so he did not do so.
On November 10, 2015, the employee received a letter from HR notifying him that his right to seek reinstatement was terminated pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 28-33-47(c)(1)(vi) of the Workers’ Compensation Act. The city relied on the fact that a period in excess of one year had elapsed since his injury. Three days after the employee received the letter, the union filed a grievance arguing that he was terminated without cause, in violation of the parties’ CBA. The grievance was held in abeyance until the conclusion of a separate workers’ compensation suit. After that suit was resolved, the employee pursued a grievance with the city. At each level, his grievance was denied. Dissatisfied, the union filed an arbitration demand. In the interim, on May 4, 2016, the employee was cleared to return to work.
Arbitration. An arbitrator determined that the employee’s grievance had merit because there was no indication that, prior to November 10, the city had regarded him as no longer covered by the CBA or entitled to its protections. The arbitrator directed the city to reinstate the employee with full back pay and without loss of benefits. The city petitioned to vacate the award and the union filed a cross-petition to enforce the award. A trial court granted the city’s motion, reasoning that the language of the statute clearly and unambiguously gave the Workers’ Compensation Court exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes. The court further explained that the CBA’s seniority provision only protected an injured worker’s right to return to the same level of seniority; it did not supersede the WCA jurisdictional grant.
The union appealed, arguing that the CBA’s two-year allotted absence, rather than the one-year absence afforded by the WCA, applied to the employee. The union did not bring the reinstatement grievance in reliance on the WCA—in fact, the Rhode Island Supreme Court observed, it would have been fruitless to do so under § 28-33-47(d), given its one-year limit. Thus, the high court held, the statute had no bearing on the decision to arbitrate the dispute.
Freedom of contract. Still, the supreme court had to address whether the arbitrator could properly resolve the union’s contention that the CBA granted the employee greater rights than the WCA. The court observed that “state law will trump contrary contract provisions when the statute provides for nondelegable or nonmodifiable duties and responsibilities in connection with the functions of state government. But there must be a direct conflict between the statutory language and a competing contractual provision.”
Here, the high court was of the opinion that the WCA and CBA can coexist, in that the provisions at issue are not mutually exclusive. The court pointed out that it has never held that a CBA cannot afford more rights than state law; in fact the opposite is true. If “there exists a valid and an enforceable collective-bargaining agreement whose terms provide greater * * * benefits that is afforded by the special legislation * * * [then] the provision of the collective bargaining agreement takes precedent over the special act.” The fact that the CBA grants employees greater benefits than the WCA is an exhibition of the parties’ freedom of contract, which should not be abridged. Accordingly, the Rhode Island Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the superior court, and remanded the matter with instructions to reinstate the arbitrator’s decision.
Dissent. Arguing that this was a workers’ compensation case, not an arbitrable labor dispute between the city and its employees’ union, Justice Goldberg would find that the issues in this case have been exclusively and unequivocally committed by the General Assembly to the Worker’s Compensation Court. Thus, Goldberg would conclude that the employee’s right to reinstatement terminated when he failed to seek reinstatement after one year from the date of his injury. The dissent was satisfied that reinstatement decisions must be resolved in the Worker’s Compensation Court.
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