Boling v PERB (Cal. Supreme Court Case No. S242034)
In 2012, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders helped launch the “Citizens Pension Reform Initiative” (CPRI) in an effort to address the unsustainability of the City’s pension obligations. CPRI supporters gathered enough signatures to qualify the CPRI for the ballot. In November 2012, over 65% of the citizens of San Diego voiced their support for pension reform by voting for the CPRI.
The unions then filed unfair practice charges against the City arguing that Mayor Sanders was acting in his official capacity in supporting the CPRI and therefore the City had an obligation to bargain the initiative with the unions, which it failed to do. The City lost at PERB but prevailed at the Court of Appeal. Today, the California Supreme Court issued a decision overturning the appellate decision and remanding this case for further proceedings.
The key issue in this case was whether Mayor Sanders’ involvement in Proposition B turned it into an action by the City, which in turn required the City to meet and confer with the unions. The Supreme Court held that since Mayor Sanders was the city’s chief executive and empowered by the city charter to make policy recommendations in labor relations matter, he was required to meet and confer with the unions prior to advocating for Proposition B. The Supreme Court reached this holding even though it was undisputed that Proposition B actually met the support requirements for a citizen’s initiative. According to the Supreme Court, “Allowing public officials to purposefully evade the meet-and confer requirements of the MMBA by officially sponsoring a citizens’ initiative would seriously undermine the policies served by the statute: fostering full communication between public employers and employees, as well as improving personnel management and employer-employee relations.”
But the Supreme Court said that, “The line between official action and private activities undertaken by public officials may be less clear in other circumstances… Whether an official played such a major role will generally be a question of fact, on which PERB’s conclusion is entitled to deference.”
- [Disclosure: I helped represent the City in this case before PERB.] This decision is disappointing but not unexpected given the questions at oral argument. Without a doubt, this is a big victory for PERB. The Supreme Court decision gives tremendous deference to PERB’s factual and legal findings. Such deference will continue to make it very difficult to overturn any PERB decision in the appellate courts.
- With respect to the merits of the case, because the Supreme Court deferred to PERB’s determination that Mayor Sanders was acting on behalf of the City, it was an easy call to require the City to bargain with the unions. One of the questions left unanswered is what, if anything, Mayor Sanders could have done to separate his advocacy of Proposition B from his official duties. The Supreme Court did leave open the possibility that government officials can separate their official actions from their private activities. However, the Court did not provide any guidance on what a government official would have to do to make such a distinction clear.
- In terms of a remedy, the Supreme Court remanded this case back to the court of appeal for consideration.