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Town of Searsport v. State

Superior Court of Maine, Kennebec

June 21, 2017




         Before the Court is the Town of Searsport's 80C appeal of the Maine Labor Relations Board's determination that the Town of Searsport's Waste Water Treatment Chief Operator/Superintendant and its Public Works Director are employees pursuant to the Municipal Public Employees Labor Relations Law. The Town of Searsport is represented by Attorney John K. Hamer. The Maine Labor Relations Board is represented by Attorney Lisa Copenhaver. Liuna Laborers' Union 327 has not appeared. Oral argument was held on June 6, 2017.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural History

         On April 7, 2016, the LIUNA Laborers' Local 327 filed a petition for unit determination with the Maine Labor Relations Board ("MLRB") seeking to create a bargaining unit for employees working in the Town of Searsport's (the "Town") Public Works Department and at the Waste Water Treatment Plant ("WWTP"). The Town objected to the inclusion of the WWTP Chief Operator/Superintendant and the Public Works Director in the bargaining unit. The MLRB's Hearing Examiner held an evidentiary hearing and issued a determination on July 11, 2016. The Hearing Examiner's decision held that both the WWTP Chief Operator/Superintendant and the Public Works Director should be included in the bargaining unit. The Town appealed the determination to the full MLRB. The MLRB reviewed the record before the Hearing Examiner and heard argument. On October 20, 2016, the MLRB issued a decision finding that the two positions were not excluded from coverage by the Maine Public Employees Labor Relations Law, 26 M.R.S. § 961 et seq (the "Act"), but also finding that the two should be placed in a separate supervisory bargaining unit. The Town now appeals the determination of the MLRB.

         B. Facts

         The Town of Searsport operates under the Town Manager Plan as set out in Title 30-A, Chapter 123, Subchapter 2. The WWTP Chief Operator/Superintendant has been appointed each year for the last 9 years to a one year appointment. The Public Works Director, Robert Seekins, was originally appointed to the position of Highway Foreman, effective April 1, 1995. The Minutes of the Board of Selectmen's (the "Board") Meeting of March 21, 1995 states that the Board approved the Town Manager's appointment of Robert Seekins. Since 1995, when Mr. Seekins was first appointed as Highway Foreman, his job title and job description have changed. In 2002, his job title changed to Public Works Director. At that time, the Board approved the job description. The Selectmen did not take any further action to reappoint or clarify the appointment of Mr. Seekins to this new job title and job description.

         As of the MLRB's determination, the Public Works Director supervised three employees and the WWTP Chief Operator/Superintendant supervised one employee. They are both tasked with planning, scheduling, assigning, and disciplining employees, if necessary. Both perform administrative tasks, for example: the purchase of equipment and supplies, record keeping, payroll, and the preparation of their department's budget. Both are responsible for the technical and mechanical operations of their respective departments and both spend a large portion of their time performing operational tasks.

         The Town of Searsport 2015 Policy Book, Section 2: Appointive Authority, lists 24 officials appointed by the Board. Neither the WWTP Chief Operator/Supervisor nor the Public Works Director are on this list. The list of officials is followed by the statement, "These appointments are made subject to state statute and may be in the form of a contract." The Policy goes on to state, "The Town Manager appoints Department Heads, subject to confirmation by the Board of Selectmen. The Town Manager also appoints all other employees as authorized by the Board of Selectmen." R. 30.

         II. Standard of Review

         When acting in an appellate capacity pursuant to Rule 80C and the APA, the court reviews an agency's decision for errors of law, abuse of discretion, or findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Somerset Cnty. v. Dep't of Corr., 2016 ME 33, ¶ 14, 133 A.3d 1006; 5 M.R.S.A. § 11007(4)(C)(1)-(6). The party seeking to vacate an agency's decision bears the burden of persuasion to demonstrate error. Rossignol v. Me. Pub. Emples. Ret. Sys., 2016 ME 115, ¶ 6, 144 A.3d 1175, Clark v. Hancock Cnty. Comm'rs, 2014 ME 33, ¶ 22, 87 A.3d 712; Forest Ecology Network v. Land Use Regulation Comm'n, 2012 ME 36 ¶ 24, 39 A.3d 74.

         An agency has the authority to determine the weight to be given to the evidence. Rossignol 2016 ME 115, ¶ 6, 144 A.3d 1175; 5 M.R.S.A. § 11007(3). Findings of fact will be affirmed if they are supported by any competent evidence in the record, even if the record contains inconsistent evidence or evidence contrary to the result reached by the agency. Watts v. Bd. of Envtl. Prot, 2014 ME 91, ¶ 5, 97 A.3d 115, 118. The reviewing court will vacate a determination that a party failed to meet that burden their burden of proof only if the record compels such a conclusion to the exclusion of any other inference. Rossignol, 2016 ME 115, ¶ 6, 144 A.3d 1175.

         Questions of law are subject to de novo review. York Hosp. v. HHS,2008 ME 165, ¶ 32, 959 A.2d 67. Deference is generally given to an agency's interpretation of an ambiguous regulation or statute that is within its area of expertise, but an agency's interpretation will be rejected if it is unreasonable or if the statute or regulation plainly compels a contrary result. Cheney v. Unemployment Ins. Comm 'n,2016 ME 105, ΒΆ 6, ...

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