ORDER ON THE CITY OF AUGUSTA'S APPLICATION FOR A STAY OF ARBITRATION PROCEEDINGS
The City of Augusta ("City") applies for a stay of arbitration proceedings pursuant to 14 M.R.S.A. § 5928(2) brought by defendant Teamsters Union Local #340 ("Teamsters") on behalf of its retired employee, Keith Brann. The City argues that the arbitration proceedings should be stayed because the City did not agree to arbitrate grievances brought by the Teamsters on behalf of its retired members. This is because retirees, such as Mr. Brann, are not "eligible employees" under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA"), or "public employees" within the meaning of the Municipal Public Employees Labor Relations Act ("MPELRA"). The Teamsters respond that the City's position is contrary to settled law and, if drawn to its logical conclusion, would effectively render the grievance process meaningless.
For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies the City's application to stay arbitration because it cannot be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause in Article 1 of the CBA is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute.
I. Factual Background
Keith Brann is a former member of the City of Augusta's Police Supervisor's Unit, which is represented by Teamsters. (Affidavit of Kristina Gould ("Gould Aff.") ¶ 4.) While Mr. Brann was still employed with the City, he filed a grievance with the City based on its stated interpretation of Article 22, section 2 of the CBA defining retiree health insurance benefits. (Affidavit of Keith Brann ("Brann Aff.") ¶ 3; Grievance attached thereto). Mr. Brann filed his grievance through the Teamsters. (Id.) Mr. Brann retired from active duty on July 11, 2014, shortly after filing his grievance. (Gould Aff. ¶ 5.) Arbitration proceedings regarding this grievance were scheduled to begin on March 5, 2015, but have been stayed pending the Court's decision on the present motion. (See id. at ¶ 7.)
The CBA provides, in pertinent part, that:
The CITY recognizes the UNION as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent for the purpose of negotiating salaries, wages, hours, and other conditions of employment for all its eligible employees within the bargaining unit of the supervisory police officers, except the Chief of Police and Deputy Chief/Mayor, as determined in accordance with the Municipal Public Employees Labor Relations Act.
(Ex. A to Gould Aff. the CBA, Article 1 (emphasis added).)
Article 11 of the CBA goes on to lay out the grievance procedure, explaining that its purpose is "to secure at the lowest possible administrative level, equitable solutions to grievances free from coercion, restraint, reprisal." (Id, Article 11, section 1.) Article 11 also defines an employee as "any person covered by this agreement as provided for under Article 1 -Recognition." (Id, Article 11, section2(a).) Furthermore, Article 11 explains that "[grievance shall mean any claimed violation, misinterpretation or inequitable application of this agreement...." (Id., Article 11, section 2(d).)
The City contends that nothing in the CBA or the MPELRA authorizes the Teamsters to bring and pursue arbitration proceedings on behalf of its former employees. In making this argument, the City first points out that Article 1 of the CBA provides, "The CITY recognizes the UNION as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent for the purpose of negotiating.. .for all its eligible employees within the bargaining unit of the supervisory police officers... as determined in accordance with the [MPELRA]." (Exhibit A to Gould Aff CBA, Article 1 (emphasis added).) The MPELRA, in turn, recognizes the right of "public employees.. .to be represented by [labor] organizations in collective bargaining for terms and conditions of employment." 26 M.R.S.A. § 961 (emphasis added). Based on this language, the City argues that retirees are not "public employees" within the meaning of the MPELRA.
In support, the City points to Interpretive Ruling, Millinocket Sch. Comm., No. 92-IR-01 (July 13, 1992) ("Millinocket”), which, it argues, concluded that retirees are not "public employees" under section 962(6) of the MPELRA. As a result, the City contends Millinocket found that employers subject to the MPELRA are not obligated to bargain over benefits for persons who have already retired. The City also points to Allied Chemical and Alkali Workers of America, Local Union No. 1 v. Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., 404 U.S. 157 (1971) (Pittsburgh Plate Glass"), in which the City contends the United States Supreme Court found it was not an unfair labor practice for employers to deal directly with retirees concerning their insurance benefits because retirees were not "employees." From these decisions the City argues that Mr. Brann is not a "public employee" protected under the MPELRA, cannot be an. employee within the bargaining unit represented by the Teamsters, and therefore does not have an agreement with the City to arbitrate grievances.
The City also argues that while Pittsburgh Plate Glass suggests that a union may, in certain cases, bargain for retiree health insurance, that possibility is foreclosed under Maine public sector law, which does not provide bargaining units the authority to negotiate on behalf of retirees. In support, the city points out that Maine law specifically authorizes bargaining agents in the private sector to negotiate on behalf of retired employees, but is silent with respect to bargaining agents in the public sector. Finally, the City points out that if the court stays arbitration, Mr. Brann is not left without a remedy. The City contends that Mr. Brann can pursue his grievance in court based on ordinary principles of contract law.
The Teamsters respond that the cases cited by the City are distinguishable because they involve bargaining being sought for retirees after their retirement. In the present case, the dispute arose during Mr. Brann's employment. The Teamsters further argue that the City's argument is contrary to settled law, which strongly favors arbitrating disputes as explained in Cape Elizabeth School Bd. v. Cape Elizabeth Teachers Ass'n, 459 A.2d 166 (Me. 1983). The Teamsters also argue that the logic of the City's argument effectively renders the grievance process meaningless. In particular, the Teamsters explain that under the City's logic, a unit member who was discharged without just cause in violation of the CBA could not pursue his grievance through the CBA because his discharge would render him no longer an employee or member of the bargaining unit. This "fallacious" result, the Teamsters contend was implicitly rejected by the Law Court in Cape Elizabeth School Bd. Finally, the Teamsters argue that the City raised a similar argument in City of Augusta v. IAFF Local 1650, conceding that retirement ...