Mashek v. Dept. of Public Health & Human Svcs.

Mashek v. Dept. of Public Health & Human Svcs., 2016 MT 86 (April 12, 2016) (Rice, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the hearing officer and district court erred in holding that the statutory Broadband Pay Plan factors preempt the collective bargaining process.

Short Answer: Yes.

Reversed

Facts: Plaintiffs are compliance specialists for the Child Support Enforcement Division (CSED) of DPHHS, pay band 6, employed by the state and belonging to MEA-MFT Local 4573. The collective bargaining agreements to which 4573 and the state are parties have two-year terms beginning on July 1 of odd years and ending on June 30 two years later. In May 2011, while Local 4573 was negotiating for the 2011-2013 contract period, plaintiffs filed a complaint against the department alleging that their pay was not “internally equitable” in comparison with pay band 6 compliance specialists in other state agencies, in violation of § 2-18-301(4), MCA. Plaintiffs did not allege the collective bargaining agreements were otherwise invalid or unenforceable.

In July 2012, plaintiffs filed a grievance with the Board of Personnel Appeals (BOPA) to exhaust their remedies. The hearing officer conducted a hearing in May 2013 and issued findings, conclusions and an order in November 2013, holding plaintiffs were aggrieved by receiving pay that was not internally equitable with other compliance specialists in the same pay band. BOPA rejected the recommended order and dismissed the grievance, holding that internal equity was a factor to be considered in the collective bargaining process, and that because plaintiffs had entered into valid collective bargaining agreements for each year, any disparity in pay did not provide a basis for a damages award.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Plaintiffs petitioned the district court for judicial review of BOPA’s order. The district court reversed, agreeing with the hearing officer. The department appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses. 

Reasoning: The district court and the hearing officer concluded that under § 2-18-301(4), MCA, plaintiffs have a free standing right, independent of their collective bargaining agreements, to internally equitable pay. This conclusion ignores the rest of the statute’s language. Competency, internal equity, and competitiveness are factors to be weighed by the department in administering the pay program, but no one factor is elevated above the others. An agency cannot set employees’ pay without collective bargaining. It would be absurd to conclude that the legislature intended the mandatory collective bargaining process to be undone because there was not equal or near equal pay across all agencies. Instead, the legislature intended internal equity to be a bargaining point, and is a factor in determining whether any agency bargained in good faith.