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California Appellate Court Balks at Permitting Pay Raises for Corrections Medical Employees Without First Obtaining Legislative Approval

In October 2012, the Third District Court of Appeal overturned an arbitrator’s ruling that certain medical employees of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), requested by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 (Union), were entitled to certain salary increases negotiated by the Union with the Department of Personnel Administration (DPA). The court held that, although the Legislature had approved the negotiated pay raises, it had not done so to the extent of arbitrator’s award.

In September 2006, the Legislature approved an agreement that had been negotiated between the Union and the DPA (a new part of the Department of Human Services). The agreement increased the salary ranges for some Union employees, pursuant to two memoranda of understanding known as MOUs, but was ambiguous as to the relationship between the MOU increases, on the one hand, and increases that might be ordered, on the other hand, as a result of federal court intervention with respect to medical care in California prisons. [See generally, Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011)]

One month later, a three-judge federal panel overseeing medical care in California’s prisons ordered pay raises for the same employees covered by the agreement that had been negotiated with the Union. The federally-ordered (Plata) raises were higher than the wage hikes previously negotiated with the Union.

The CDCR refused to apply the MOU salary increase on top of the Plata increases. It took the position that the former had been superseded by the latter. The Union challenged this refusal, taking the matter to labor arbitration.

The arbitrator sided with the Union, ruling, based on its interpretation of the MOUs, that the Plata salary increase added to, rather than, superseded the MOU raises.

The trial court upheld the arbitrator’s interpretation of the MOUs.

Finding that it was not arbitrary, the appellate court also upheld the arbitrator’s interpretation of the MOUs. However, that interpretation, the court held, could not bind the Legislature, which alone has the authority to approve higher salaries for state employees. Because the Legislature had not explicitly approved the combined wage hike sought by the Union, the court held, the arbitrator’s award violated public policy.

In order to secure both wage increases, the Union would need to “obtain passage of a bill approving the higher salaries, a remedy squarely in the political realm.” See: California Dept. of Human Resources v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, 209 Cal.App.4th 1420, 148 Cal.Rptr.3d 57 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2012), review denied.

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Related legal case

California Dept. of Human Resources v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000