Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Judge Cannot Block Cleveland Fire Department’s Shift-Change Order

The Ohio Supreme Court today lifted a hold placed by a Cuyahoga County judge on the Cleveland Fire Department’s move to change the starting time of its 24-hour shifts.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court ruled Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Nancy Russo “patently and unambiguously” lacks jurisdiction over a complaint filed by Cleveland’s firefighters’ union to block the shift change announced in December 2018. The Court ruled the union only argued issues that are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Employment Relations Board (SERB) and the firefighters must rely on the board to address the complaints the union filed against the city.

The fire chief announced that the shift start times would move from 8:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. Judge Russo maintained that because the union noted the changes could impact child-custody decrees, family-care arrangements, and posed other hardships for firefighters, she had the authority to consider the case. Judge Russo’s order blocked any change in start times until June 30 or whenever the Supreme Court resolved the dispute.

Union Seeks to Bargain Start-Time Changes
Cleveland’s fire chief announced the start-time changes would take effect in early February. Days after the announcement, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 93, emailed the chief, objecting to the change and arguing that it violated the current contract and the contract negotiations that were underway.

When the chief issued the formal shift-change notification in January, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge with SERB. The union alleged the chief’s actions violated two provisions of R.C. 4117.11(A), including refusing to bargain with the employees’ representative.

The union then filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment, asked for a temporary restraining order (TRO), and sought an injunction from the common pleas court. The union asked the court to declare that the shift-time order violated R.C. 4117.08 because it was subject to collective bargaining, and the union sought to prevent the city from enforcing the order until the negotiation process was completed.

At a February hearing before Judge Russo, the city asked the case to be dismissed, arguing the court lacked jurisdiction to oversee the issue and that SERB has exclusive authority. Judge Russo denied the dismissal request, granted the TRO, and scheduled a March hearing on the matter. Before the hearing took place, the city sought a writ of prohibition from the Supreme Court to prevent Judge Russo from taking any further action in the case and requesting the TRO be lifted.

Court Rejects Judge’s Position
The Supreme Court’s opinion explains that SERB has jurisdiction over all “matters pertaining to wages, hours, or terms and other conditions of employment” that are subject to collective bargaining between public employers and public employees. While SERB has the sole authority to rule on whether the city violated any of the rights of the firefighters created by R.C. Chapter 4117, a common pleas court can rule on labor issues that are “independent” from the collective bargaining law.

In response to the city’s request for the writ, Judge Russo argued she had jurisdiction to consider the matter because the union’s complaints included claims that were independent from R.C. Chapter 4117. Specifically, the judge noted the union’s complaints included the impact some firefighters would face regarding child-custody and family-care arrangements and that some firefighters would personally be affected by the “structural change to their work schedule.” The judge considered those issues to be independent from the union’s claim that the city engaged in unfair labor practices.

The Supreme Court stated that the union’s complaint is seeking only a declaration that the shift-change order violates R.C. 4117.08(A). The opinion stated that the union has broadly referred to the child-custody and family-care arrangements, and those claims are arguments that fall within the union’s allegation that the chief is committing an unfair labor practice by unilaterally changing the work hours. Because none of the union claims falls outside of SERB’s jurisdiction, the Court vacated Judge Russo’s orders and prevents her from taking further action in the case.

2019-0251. State ex rel. Cleveland v. Russo, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-1595.

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