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Board of Trumbull County Commissioners v. Gatti

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh District, Trumbull

November 13, 2017

ROBERT GATTI, Defendant-Appellant.

         Civil Appeal from the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas, Case No. 2015 CV 02192.

          Matthew J. Blair, Blair & Latell Co., L.P.A., (For Plaintiffs-Appellees).

          David L Engler, Engler Law Firm, (For Defendant-Appellant).



         {¶1} Appellant, Robert Gatti, appeals from the entry of summary judgment by the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas in favor of appellees, Board of Trumbull County Commissioners, et al. At issue is whether the trial court possessed subject matter jurisdiction over the underlying complaint and, if so, whether the trial court erred in concluding there were no genuine issues of material fact for trial and, as such, appellees were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. We affirm.

         {¶2} Appellant, an employee of the Trumbull County Engineer's Office, was involved in an accident on October 20, 2008, while working for the Engineer's Office. Appellant was a member of the AFSCME Local 11/AFL-CIO ("AFSCME"), which is the representative of the bargaining unit employees of the Engineer's office. AFSCME entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") for the period of April 20, 2007 through April 19, 2013, on behalf of the employees of the Engineer's Office.

         {¶3} As a result of his accident, appellant was on various leaves from October 2008 through February 14, 2011. During his leaves, appellant collected workers' compensation benefits. The CBA requires unit members to share in the cost of hospitalization-insurance benefits while on workers' compensation after the employee has been receiving workers'-compensation benefits for a certain period of time.

         {¶4} Consistent with the terms of the CBA, the Engineer's office continued to provide hospitalization benefits to appellant during his periods of leave. Pursuant to the CBA, appellant was required to pay appellees a total of $10, 500.64 as his proportionate share of the advanced hospitalization-insurance premiums. Appellant made one payment toward the premiums of $185.05 in 2009. The outstanding balance of $10, 315.59 remained due. Appellees requested appellant to pay the unpaid balance, but appellant did not do so.

         {¶5} On December 15, 2015, appellees filed a complaint against appellant asserting claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The complaint sought $10, 315.59 reimbursement for appellant's portion of accrued hospitalization insurance- benefit premiums while appellant was on workers' compensation leave. Appellant filed an answer and counterclaim against appellee, Randy L. Smith, Trumbull County Engineer. The counterclaim was ultimately dismissed, after which appellant moved the trial court for judgment on the pleadings.

         {¶6} In his motion, appellant claimed the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over appellees' claims relating to the reimbursement of his portion of the premiums. He maintained the claims fell under the exclusive jurisdiction of the State Employee Relations Board ("SERB"), pursuant to R.C. Chapter 4117, as they arise from or are dependent upon rights created by the CBA. In response, appellees argued the trial court possessed subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because R.C. Chapter 4117 does not provide a procedure for SERB to intervene in a dispute regarding an employee's breach of a contractual obligation for contribution under the terms of a CBA; and, because the claim does not involve or allege an unfair labor practice under the statute, the court of common pleas possessed jurisdiction to proceed. The trial court agreed with appellees and denied appellant's motion.

         {¶7} On June 27, 2016, appellees served a request for admissions, to be answered within 28 days, upon appellant and filed a notice of discovery on June 29, 2016. Appellant did not respond to the request for admissions and, on August 5, 2016, appellees moved to have the requests deemed admitted. Appellant did not respond to this motion and, on August 24, 2016, the trial court deemed the requests admitted.

         {¶8} Appellees filed a motion for summary judgment to which appellant responded, again asserting his jurisdictional arguments. On February 27, 2017, the trial court granted appellees' motion and awarded them judgment in the amount of $10, 315.59. Appellant now appeals and assigns two errors for our review. His first assignment of error provides:

         {¶9} "The trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this lawsuit." {¶10} Subject-matter jurisdiction is the power conferred upon a court, either by constitutional provision or by statute, to decide a particular matter or issue on its merits. State ex rel. Jones v. Suster, 84 Ohio St.3d 70, 75 (1998). SERB is a state agency created by R.C. Chapter 4117. R.C. 4117.02(A); see also State ex rel. Brecksville Edn. Assn., OEA/NEA v. State Emp. Relations Bd., 74 Ohio St.3d 665, 666 (1996). As a state agency and a creation of statute, SERB is limited to the authority and jurisdiction conferred on it by statute. State ex rel. Ohio Civ. Serv. Emp. Assn. v. State, 146 Ohio St.3d 315, 2016-Ohio-478, ¶51; see also Penn Cent. Transp. Co. v. Pub. Util. Comm., 35 Ohio St.2d 97 (1973), paragraph one of the syllabus. "When the General Assembly intends to vest an administrative agency with exclusive jurisdiction, it does so by appropriate statutory language." State ex rel. OCSEA, supra, at ¶52 citing State ex rel. Banc One Corp. v. Walker, 86 Ohio St.3d 169, 171-172 (1999).

         {¶11} "Exclusive jurisdiction to resolve unfair labor practice charges is vested in SERB in two general areas: (1) where one of the parties filed charges with SERB alleging an unfair labor practice under R.C. 4117.11 and (2) where a complaint brought before the common pleas court alleges conduct that constitutes an unfair labor practice specifically enumerated in R.C. 4117.11." State ex rel. Ohio Dept. of Mental Health v. Nadel,98 Ohio St.3d 405, 2003-Ohio-1632, ¶23; E Cleveland v. E Cleveland Firefighters Local 500, I.A.F.F.,70 Ohio St.3d 125, 127-128 (1994). "Nowhere in R.C. Chapter 4117 does the General Assembly assign SERB exclusive jurisdiction over all issues touching on that chapter's provisions. Instead, the General Assembly targeted specific issues for SERB to address in the first instance." State ex rel. OCSEA, supra. Indeed, the Supreme Court has "expressly acknowledged * * * that a plaintiff may raise in the common pleas courts rights that exist independently of R.C. Chapter 4117, "'even though they may touch on the collective bargaining relationships.'" Id. at ¶54 quoting Franklin Co. Law Enforcement Assn. v. Fraternal Order of Police, Capital City Lodge No. 9, 59 Ohio St.3d 167, 172 (1991). Accordingly, "if a party asserts rights that are independent of R.C. Chapter 4117, the party's ...

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