Judge sides with DRPA officers, orders binding arbitration in bridge agency labor dispute

By Jon Campisi | Feb 15, 2013

A federal judge has sided with the union representing Delaware River Port Authority police officers, denying the DRPA’s motion for summary judgment, and granting the union’s request to enter into binding arbitration in a labor dispute between the bridge agency and its first responders.

A federal judge has sided with the union representing Delaware River Port Authority police officers, denying the DRPA’s motion for summary judgment, and granting the union’s request to enter into binding arbitration in a labor dispute between the bridge agency and its first responders.

The Pennsylvania Record reported back in April of last year on litigation initiated by the officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police Penn-Jersey Lodge 30, and the DRPA, over the terms and conditions of the officers’ employment contract.

The lawsuit claimed that the 131 police officers under the DRPA’s employ have been working without a contract since the pact expired at the end of 2009.

The union filed suit at the U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J. seeking to have a judge compel the bi-state agency to submit to binding arbitration relating to the employment compact.

On Feb. 13, Chief U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle of the District of New Jersey agreed with the plaintiffs, granting the FOP’s request for an order mandating binding arbitration.

The ruling comes after oral arguments were held on the matter in late January, the record shows.

In his opinion, Simandle wrote that he was granting the FOP’s request because the issue has been previously litigated in and decided by New Jersey state courts.

Going all the way back to 1999, the ruling states, New Jersey courts have ruled that the DRPA must submit to interest arbitration.

The most recent four-year collective bargaining agreement between the DRPA and its police officers ended in 2009, background information on the case shows.

The parties met on several occasions throughout 2010 to negotiate a successor contract, but efforts were not made to enter into a new CBA.

In late November 2010, the judge’s ruling states, the FOP took the position that the parties were at an impasse and should proceed to arbitration, but the DRPA advised the union of its belief that arbitration was not legally mandatory.

The DRPA took the position that it need not participate in arbitration because the compact does not contain express language ordering it to do so, according to the court opinion.

Basically, the bridge agency contended that since the compact doesn’t incorporate the Pennsylvania and New Jersey collective bargaining laws, the DRPA is not required to submit to interest arbitration.

The union, however, counter-argued that the proper test is not “express intent,” but rather the complementary and parallel legislation test, Simandle’s opinion states.

“If both states have passed complementary and parallel legislation, then Plaintiff argues that such legislation applies to the DRPA,” Simandle wrote.

The ruling notes that both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have statutory procedures to be applied when collective bargaining between police or fire employees reaches an impasse, and those procedures include interest arbitration.

“FOP therefore argues that these statutes apply to the DRPA through the concurred-in-clause because the statutes are similar,” Simandle wrote. “Plaintiff notes that New Jersey state courts have never embraced the express intent test for interpreting bi-state compacts.”

Simandle wrote that the question before the court is “actually quite narrow,” and asks whether a prior New Jersey state court case in which the DRPA was ordered to participate in arbitration with its police force “commands the same result because of issue preclusion in this case.”

Simandle ruled that just as the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in the past, the prior New Jersey decision is entitled to preclusive effect and, as a result, the District Court will not address the bi-state compact interpretation questions that the parties have raised in their litigation.

In 2001, the record shows, the DRPA brought a declaratory judgment action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania seeking a resolution as to whether the agency must recognize and bargain collectively with the police union.

The district court held that “because the legislatures of the two states which created the DRPA … have not enacted legislation that expressly imposes upon the DRPA the duty to recognize and bargain collectively with the exclusive bargaining agent of its police officers, the DRPA is not obligated to bargain with the Unions in this case,” background information on the issue states.

The Third Circuit Appeals Court, however, ended up reversing the district court’s decision because the Eastern District of Pennsylvania should have “given preclusive effect to the [DRPA’s] holding New Jersey and Pennsylvania law enforcement labor laws apply to the DRPA.”

In the end, Simandle simply wrote that the courts have an interest in avoiding repetitive litigation and promoting final judgment, and that it is inclined to honor previous court decisions with regard to this matter.

“There is nothing more than a metaphysical doubt that the parties have reached impasse,” Simandle wrote. “The parties have not advised the Court of a resolution and the Court has waited past the 14-day deadline. As explained above, the DRPA is collaterally estopped from denying FOP’s right to collective bargaining, including arbitration. Given that the parties are at impasse, the Court will order interest arbitration.”

The DRPA, which was created in the early 1930s, is a bi-state agency that operates the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the Walt Whitman Bridge, the Betsy Ross Bridge, and the Commodore Barry Bridge, which connect Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The agency, which can enforce both Pennsylvania and New Jersey law, also runs the PATCO high-speed rail line that traverses the Delaware River.

Entry-level DRPA officers earn $49,015 per year, rank-and-file cops make $64,417 annually and a DRPA sergeant makes more than $80,000, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

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