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Ohio Historical Society v. State Employment Relations Board

Supreme Court of Ohio

June 23, 1993

Ohio Historical Society, Appellee,
v.
State Employment Relations Board et al., Appellants.

Submitted February 3, 1993

Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Franklin County, Nos. 91AP-97, 91AP-98.

Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease and James P. Friedt; Fred J. Milligan, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

Lee I. Fisher, Attorney General, and Toki M. Clark, for appellant SERB.

Ronald H. Janetzke, for appellant Ohio Council 8, AFSCME.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the Court of Appeals for Franklin County which held that appellee, the Ohio Historical Society ("the Society"), is not a "public employer" for the purposes of R.C. Chapter 4117.

This litigation began in 1984 when appellant Ohio Council 8, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO ("AFSCME") filed a petition for representation election with appellant State Employment Relations Board ("SERB"). AFSCME sought to represent certain employees of the Society for the purpose of collective bargaining.

At approximately the same time as it filed its petition with SERB, AFSCME filed a petition for certification of representation with the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB"). On June 14, 1984, the NLRB regional director to whom the petition was assigned dismissed the petition on the grounds that the Society is a "political subdivision" under federal law. The NLRB denied AFSCME's request that it review the regional director's decision.

The Society moved to dismiss AFSCME's state petition for representation election on the very grounds we consider today: that it is not a "public employer" as defined in R.C. 4117.01(B) and that SERB, therefore, does not have jurisdiction over it. In response to the Society's motion, SERB directed a hearing to be held to determine, inter alia, whether the Society is a public employer.

After hearing evidence presented by the parties, the SERB hearing officer concluded that the Society is a public employer under R.C. Chapter 4117 and issued a recommendation to SERB that it adopt that position. In February 1986, SERB issued an order finding the Society to be a public employer and directed that a representation election be held.

Using two procedural routes, the Society sought relief from the SERB order in the Court of Common Pleas of Franklin County. It filed an appeal from the SERB order pursuant to R.C. 119.12. Both SERB and AFSCME moved to dismiss the appeal on the grounds that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The Society also filed a complaint for declaratory judgment pursuant to R.C. Chapter 2721. The court dismissed the Society's declaratory judgment action because, it concluded, the Society was entitled to appellate review under R.C. 119.12. The court then held that the Society is not a public employer and is, therefore, not subject to SERB's jurisdiction.

The court of appeals reversed. It held that the trial court did not have jurisdiction over the Society's R.C. 119.12 appeal because an appeal was premature. The court also reversed the trial court's dismissal of the Society's declaratory judgment action. It ruled that consideration of that action was within the sound discretion of the trial court.

The Society appealed to this court and we accepted jurisdiction. The only issue before the court was "whether [the Society] can appeal the adjudication order issued by SERB[.]" Ohio Historical Soc. v. State Emp. Relations Bd. (1990), 48 Ohio St.3d 45, 46, 549 N.E.2d 157, 158. The issue of whether the trial court could entertain the declaratory judgment action was not before the court because that portion of the court of appeals' decision was not appealed. Id . at 48, 549 N.E.2d at 160. As to the question of whether the R.C. 119.12 appeal was proper, we affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. We held that because the election ordered by SERB had not yet taken place, SERB's order was not a final order and was, therefore, not yet appealable to the common pleas court.

In response to our decision, the common pleas court issued an order holding both the R.C. 119.12 appeal and the declaratory judgment action in abeyance pending the outcome of the representation election ordered by SERB. In April 1990, SERB conducted the scheduled election; AFSCME, however, was not successful in obtaining the votes necessary to be certified as the Society's employees' exclusive bargaining agent.

After AFSCME lost the representation election, the Society moved to renew its R.C. 119.12 appeal in the common pleas court. In December 1990, the court issued its decision. It held that the Society is not a public employer for purposes of R.C. Chapter 4117. The case number appearing in the caption of the decision indicated that it was on the R.C. 119.12 appeal alone. The caption of the court's January 4, 1991 journal entry, however, listed the case numbers for both the declaratory judgment action and the R.C. 119.12 appeal.

SERB and AFSCME appealed the trial court's decisions to the Court of Appeals for Franklin County. The court of appeals affirmed. It held that the trial court had jurisdiction to consider the declaratory judgment action and that the Society is not a public employer under R.C. 4117.01(B).

The cause is now before this court upon the allowance of AFSCME's and SERB's motions to certify the record.

Wright, J.

I

AFSCME argues that pursuant to this court's decision in Franklin Cty. Law Enforcement Assn. v. Fraternal Order of Police, Capital City Lodge No. 9 (1991), 59 Ohio St.3d 167, 572 N.E.2d 87, inter alia, the common pleas court did not have jurisdiction to hear the Society's declaratory judgment action. We agree.

The court of appeals held that the issue of whether the Society is a public employer is "properly determinable by declaratory judgment." In doing so it cited our opinion in Ohio Historical Soc. v. State Emp. Relations Bd.(1990), 48 Ohio St.3d 45, 549 N.E.2d 157 ("Historical Soc. I"). This reliance was improper, however, because we expressly declined to consider the issue, since it was not before this court on appeal. Id . at 48, 549 N.E.2d at 160. The issue was squarely before the court, however, in Franklin Cty. Law Enforcement Assn., supra, which was decided the following year. It is this precedent which we must follow.

In Franklin Cty. Law Enforcement Assn., this court considered whether the common pleas court had jurisdiction to entertain a complaint requesting preliminary and permanent injunctions and a declaratory judgment. We decided that because the matters alleged in the complaint are governed exclusively by the Ohio Public Employees' Collective Bargaining Act, R.C. Chapter 4117, the trial court could not exercise jurisdiction. "The State Employment Relations Board has exclusive jurisdiction to decide matters committed to it pursuant to R.C. Chapter 4117." Id . at paragraph one of the syllabus. Writing for the court, Chief Justice Moyer explained that "R.C. Chapter 4117 has created a series of new rights and set forth the remedies and procedures to be applied regarding those rights. [T]hose remedies and procedures are exclusive." Id . at 170, 572 N.E.2d at 90. The "procedures created in R.C. Chapter 4117 do not provide for the filing of a private action in the common pleas court." Id . When a complainant in a labor relations case asserts rights that are completely independent of R.C. Chapter 4117, the common pleas court may exercise jurisdiction. However, "[i]f a party asserts claims that arise from or depend on the collective bargaining rights created by R.C. Chapter 4117, the remedies provided in that chapter are exclusive." Id . at 171, 572 N.E.2d at 91.

The only substantive allegation in the Society's complaint for declaratory judgment was that it is not a public employer. Resolution of this allegation depends entirely on the provisions of R.C. Chapter 4117, over which SERB has exclusive original jurisdiction. Determination of its jurisdiction over a petition for a representation election is to be decided, in the first instance, by SERB. Id . at 169-170, 572 N.E.2d at 90-91.

R.C. Chapter 4117 "was meant to regulate in a comprehensive manner the labor relations between public employees and employers." Id . at 171, 572 N.E.2d at 91. The Declaratory Judgments Act, R.C. Chapter 2721, was not intended to be used to circumvent such comprehensive agency processes. SERB has exclusive jurisdiction to consider issues concerning petitions for representation elections. Common pleas courts are limited to appellate jurisdiction, at the proper time, over these and other matters arising under R.C. Chapter 4117. As to this issue the judgment of the court of appeals is reversed.

II

AFSCME also argues that the courts below did not use the proper standard of review in reaching their decisions. The lower courts were considering both the R.C. 119.12 administrative appeal and the declaratory judgment action filed by the Society. In light of our disposition of the Society's declaratory judgment action, the issue presented to us is whether the courts below exercised the proper standard of review over the Society's administrative appeal.

Generally, appeals to the common pleas courts from agency adjudications are governed by Ohio's Administrative Procedure Act, which is codified in R.C. Chapter 119. "[E]xcept where specific appeal procedures are provided, such as R.C. 4117.13(D) (unfair labor practices)[1] and R.C. 4117.23 (penalty for unlawful strike), or where appeals to a court are prohibited, such as R.C. 4117.06(A) (determination of unit appropriate for collective bargaining purposes), the general provisions of R.C. 119.12 govern the appealability of an adjudication order issued by SERB." Historical Soc. I, supra, 48 Ohio St.3d at 46, 549 N.E.2d at 158.

R.C. 119.12 provides in part: "The court [of common pleas] may affirm the order of the agency complained of in the appeal if it finds, upon consideration of the entire record and such additional evidence as the court has admitted, that the order is supported by reliable, probative, and substantial evidence and is in accordance with law." This standard requires two inquiries: a hybrid factual/legal inquiry and a purely legal inquiry.

In Univ. of Cincinnati v. Conrad (1980), 63 Ohio St.2d 108, 17 O.O.3d 65, 407 N.E.2d 1265, and Andrews v. Bd. of Liquor Control (1955), 164 Ohio St. 275, 58 O.O. 51, 131 N.E.2d 390, this court described the hybrid factual/legal inquiry required by R.C. 119.12. "It is obvious that, if the General Assembly had intended the appeal provision to afford a trial de novo, the court would be required to hear all material, relevant and probative evidence which either party might desire to present. On the other hand, the language of [then recently amended R.C. 119.12] extends the authority of the Common Pleas Court, upon appeal, beyond that court's former authority which did not permit it to substitute its judgment for that of the agency and which confined it to determining the rights of the parties in accordance with the statutes and law applicable." Andrews, supra, at 279-280, 58 O.O. at 53, 131 N.E.2d at 393. In undertaking its review, the common pleas court must give deference to the agency's resolution of evidentiary conflicts, but "the findings of the agency are by no means conclusive." Conrad, supra, at 111, 17 O.O.3d at 67, 407 N.E.2d at 1267-1268. "Where the court, in its appraisal of the evidence, determines that there exist legally significant reasons for discrediting certain evidence relied upon by the administrative body, and necessary to its determination, the court may reverse, vacate or modify the administrative order." Id . at 111, 17 O.O.3d at 67, 407 N.E.2d at 1268. We take this precedent to mean that an agency's findings of fact are presumed to be correct and must be deferred to by a reviewing court unless that court determines that the agency's findings are internally inconsistent, impeached by evidence of a prior inconsistent statement, rest upon improper inferences, or are otherwise unsupportable. See id. at 111-112, 17 O.O.3d at 67, 407 N.E.2d at 1268. The agency's order survives the first prong of the common pleas court's review if the court finds that the evidence the agency relied on is indeed "reliable, probative, and substantial."

Andrews recognized that even before R.C. 119.12 was amended to require reviewing courts to make the hybrid inquiry described above, courts were to determine "the rights of the parties in accordance with the statutes and law applicable." Andrews, supra, 164 Ohio St. at 280, 58 O.O. at 53, 131 N.E.2d at 393. Under R.C. 119.12, a reviewing court is obligated to determine whether the agency's decision is "in accordance with law." An agency adjudication is like a trial, and while the reviewing court must defer to the lower tribunal's findings of fact, it must construe the law on its own. To the extent that an agency's decision is based on construction of the state or federal Constitution, a statute, or case law, the common pleas court must undertake its R.C. 119.12 reviewing task completely independently.

AFSCME argues that the common pleas courts must affirm SERB orders as long as they are supported by "reliable, probative, and substantial evidence." This is an incomplete statement of the proper standard of review. The Society correctly points out that the courts must also exercise independent judgment as to matters of law.

In this case none of the parties has argued that the SERB hearing officer's findings of fact are not supported by "reliable, probative, and substantial evidence." Thus, the inquiry for the reviewing courts is whether, accepting the facts found by the hearing officer as true, the Society is a public employer, as a matter of law, under R.C. 4117.01(B). We find ...


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