SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - The California Supreme Court has ruled that a city's refusal to bargain with a firefighters union over its layoff decision does not violate state law.

The Court's opinion, filed Monday, upheld the judgment of an appeals court and a superior court, and the state's Public Employment Relations Board, which is charged with enforcing state labor laws affecting local government employees.

Facing a budget crisis, the city of Richmond decided to lay off 18 of its firefighter employees. The firefighters union then tried to negotiate with the city to avert the layoffs, but the city refused to bargain over its decision.

The union turned to the PERB, which would not issue a complaint because it concluded that the city's refusal to bargain had not violated state law.

The union then brought an action in Contra Costa County Superior Court, but that court agreed with PERB that no unfair labor practice had occurred.

On the union's appeal, an appeals court affirmed the superior court's judgment.

In the Court's 20-page majority opinion, it addressed two issues:

- If, after receiving an unfair labor practice charge, PERB decides not to issue a complaint, is that decision ever subject to judicial review?

- Is a city's decision to lay off firefighters for fiscal reasons a matter that is subject to collective bargaining?

Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who authored the Court's opinion, said it agreed with the appeals court that although PERB's refusal to issue a complaint is generally not subject to judicial review, "this general rule has narrow exceptions."

"One of these exception applies when, as the union alleges here, PERB's refusal is based on a clearly erroneous statutory construction," Kennard wrote.

On the second question, the Court concluded -- as did the appeals court -- that when a city, faced with a budget deficit, decides that some firefighters must be laid off as a cost-saving measure, the city is not required to meet and confer with the firefighters' authorized employee representative before making that initial decision.

"In this situation, the city's duty to bargain with the employee representative extends only to the implementation and effects of the layoff decision, including the number and identity of the employees to be laid off, and the timing of the layoffs," the Court wrote.

The union, Local 188, it said, has not shown that PERB's refusal to issue a complaint was based on a misunderstanding of this rule.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter, who wrote a separate opinion, said he concurred with the Court's holding that the city's decision to layoff firefighters is not subject to collective bargaining.

However, Baxter disagreed with the majority that, after receiving an unfair labor charge and PERB does not issue a complaint, that the decision is subject to judicial review.

"Under the majority's holding, PERB's routine exercise of discretion in determining which matters coming before it warrant the issuance of a complaint, and which do not, could be unduly impacted," he wrote.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at

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