Fire Fighter’s dispute of health benefits under collective bargaining must be submitted to arbitration says Fourth Court of Appeals.

The City of San Antonio v. International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 624, 04-12-00783-CV (Tex. App. – San Antonio, October 2, 2013).

This is a dispute arising out of a collective bargaining agreement between San Antonio (“City”) and the Local 624 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (“the Union”). The Union filed suit in district court, alleging the City unilaterally changed the terms of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) regarding health-care benefits (but that issue is not reach in this opinion). The City claimed the Union failed to exhaust its administrative remedies under the CBA and the dispute is subject to arbitration. The trial court denied the City’s motion to abate so the City pursued two alternative means of review, a petition for writ of mandamus and an interlocutory appeal. The San Antonio Court of Appeals held the claims must be submitted to arbitration. The opinion generated a dissent.

The court first determined that since there is no statutorily-permitted appeal from a motion to compel arbitration, the proper mechanism for relief for a common law claim is the writ of mandamus. However, this case does not arise out of the common law but the CBA which incorporates the Federal Arbitration Act. As a result, the proper mechanism for appeal is the interlocutory appeal.  The Union asserted its claims were statutory claims existing outside of the CBA. However, the Fourth Court disagreed. Because the Union asked for a declaration the City changed health-care benefits without bargaining, it is improper to do so without first interpreting whether the CBA’s conditions have been altered. As a result, the claims are not separate from the contract and arbitration is required. Further, because the CBA expressly provides for abatement should either party fail to exhaust procedures under the contract, abatement is proper as opposed to dismissal.  In short, City wins this round and the dispute goes to arbitration.

The dissent essentially reasoned the Union’s claims are statutory claims outside the CBA and therefore not subject to arbitration.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  The mandamus opinion (which is exactly the same) is here.  The dissenting opinion is here.