Appeals Court Discusses Nondelegable Management Rights of Fire Chiefs

On Friday, May 1, 2020, the Appeals Court issued a decision regarding the nondelegable management rights afforded to fire chiefs in the Commonwealth, and the extent to which those rights permit fire chiefs to make unilateral policies and decisions on matters affecting public safety.  The decision, Town of Dracut v. Dracut Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 2586 (19-P-14), addressed a policy implemented by a fire chief that restricted attendance of on-duty firefighters at union meetings to address public safety concerns.

As recounted in the decision, the town’s fire department is staffed twenty-four (24) hours per day each day at three different stations: central, east and west.  In 1986, when the department only operated two stations, the town and union included language in the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) permitting the union to hold monthly meetings at the central station to ensure attendance of all members.  Until 2016, the parties maintained a practice of permitting firefighters at the east and west stations to attend union meetings at the central station.  In April 2016 the fire chief, concerned about potential delays in response times if crews were departing from the central station as opposed to their assigned stations after attending union meetings, issued a new policy rescinding permission for on-duty firefighters at the east and west stations to attend union meetings at the central station.  The policy did not apply to other activities at the central station such as inspections, training, drills, etc.

The union grieved the new policy, and the matter proceeded to arbitration.  The arbitrator ruled in favor of the union.  However, the town successfully vacated the arbitration award in Superior Court where the court concluded that the award intruded upon the nondelegable authority of the chief to manage the fire department pursuant to G.L. c. 48, § 42.  Specifically, the Superior Court determined that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by usurping the chief’s nondelegable authority to manage the workforce and make decisions pertinent to matters of public safety.

The Appeals Court, however, disagreed and reversed the Superior Court’s decision, requiring the Superior Court to confirm the arbitration award.  At the outset of its decision, the Appeals Court recognized the longstanding nondelegability doctrine, which limits the reach of the requirement to negotiate over mandatory subjects of bargaining where public policy requires that a public employer reserve certain matters to its sole discretion to preserve accountability in performing essential government functions.  As it relates to fire chiefs, the Appeals Court acknowledged the language of G.L. c. 48, § 42, which imbues fire chiefs with “…full and absolute authority in the administration of the department, [and] shall make all rules and regulations for its operations…”

While fire chiefs, like other public safety officials, are statutorily charged with broad authority to preserve department operations, here the Appeals Court did not find this authority was sufficient to unilaterally change the union meeting policy.  Indeed, the Appeals Court noted, a policy impacted response time can raise an important public safety issue – however, it found the town failed to demonstrate the existence of a public policy or core managerial function to justify denying bargaining over the issue.  Specifically, the Appeals Court found that the policy was “directed solely to attendance at union meetings” and that such a policy is “not fundamental to the effective operation of an enterprise.”  At its core, this case was “about whether union officers and members may attend union meetings…” which the Appeals Court recognized as essential to the right to self-representation under G.L. c. 150E.  Lastly, the Appeals Court made a point to distinguish this matter from cases involving the nondelegable authority of police chiefs.

This decision demonstrates how closely courts will scrutinize the nondelegable management right doctrine and whether an arbitration award violates Massachusetts public policy.  While on its face the decision might appear to unduly hamper the management rights of fire chiefs, the resulting decision actually appears to be narrow to the particular facts at issue.

If you have questions or concerns regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor and employment law generally, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.