June 22, 2018

Adjudicating the impact of a statute or a regulation that impairs obligations of the parties set out in collective bargaining agreements


Adjudicating the impact of a statute or a regulation that impairs obligations of the parties set out in collective bargaining agreements
Buffalo Teachers Fedn., Inc. v Elia, 2018 NY Slip Op 04061, Appellate Division, Third Department

This appeal sought court review of three determinations of the Commissioner of Education resolving disputes between the Buffalo Federation of Teachers [Federation] and the Buffalo City School District [District] concerning the negotiation of a receivership agreement pursuant to the Education Transformation Act of 2015* which provided for the "[t]akeover and restructuring of failing schools."

The Act restricts the subject matter of the receivership agreement to "the length of the school day; the length of the school year; professional development for teachers and administrators; class size; and changes to the programs, assignments, and teaching conditions in the school receivership." The Act further provides that if the parties are unable to reach an agreement with regard to "unresolved issues" must ultimately be submitted to the Commissioner for resolution, whereupon "the Commissioner has five days to resolve the issues in accord with standard collective bargaining principles."

One of the question presented in this appeal was whether the Act was "reasonable and necessary to further the significant and legitimate public interest in 'maximiz[ing] the rapid achievement of students' at schools deemed to be persistently struggling and struggling" with respect to the impairment of provisions set out in a collective bargaining agreement between the parties.

Citing Energy Reserves Group, Inc. v Kansas Power and Light Co., 459 US 400, the Appellate Division observed that "[g]enerally, where a statute or regulation impairs a private contract, courts will defer to a legislature's rationale with regard to its necessity."

In contrast, said the court, less deference is warranted [to the legislature's rationale] where the statute or regulation "is self-serving and impairs the obligations of [the state's] own contracts" because "a [s]tate is not completely free to consider impairing the obligations of its own contracts on a par with other policy alternatives." Further, the Appellate Division continued, "less deference [to the legislature's rationale] may be warranted even where, as here, the state is not a party to an impaired public contract."

The tests applied in determining if an impairment is reasonable and necessary under a "less deference scrutiny" analysis, must be shown that the state did not:

"(1) consider impairing the contracts on par with other policy alternatives; or

"(2) impose a drastic impairment when an evident and more moderate course would serve its purpose equally well; nor

"(3) act unreasonably in light of the surrounding circumstances."

Assuming, without deciding, that the "less deferential standard" applied in this instance, the Appellate Division found that applying the relevant provision of the Education Law was  reasonable and necessary both on its face and as applied, explaining that "the receivership agreement was necessary in order to implement available methods to address the immediate issues that were facing the struggling or persistent struggling schools."

The court observed that the statute provides that the Superintendent of Schools must act in accordance with the existing collective bargaining agreement and, "where, as here, a receivership agreement is requested, the statute limits the scope of the agreement — and impairment." Further, "no modification or impairment can be unilaterally imposed but instead must be negotiated."

The Appellate Division concluded that "As applied, although an agreement was not reached with regard to all issues, the modifications imposed were applicable to the affected schools only for the time limited by the statute" which applied prospectively and limited the scope, application and duration of any modifications to existing agreements, while prohibiting any adverse financial impact. This, said the court, "was reasonably designed and necessary to further the goal of helping students to succeed."

Noting that the Federation contended that there were "means and methods that would be much more effective," the Appellate Division decided that "the relative wisdom of the statute is not for [it] to consider" and  remitted the matter to State Education Department for "further proceedings not inconsistent with this Court's decision."

* Laws of 2015, Chapter 56, Part EE, Subpart H, §§1 and 2.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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