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Lewis v. Baltimore Convention Center

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

December 1, 2016

ANTHONY LEWIS, et al.
v.
BALTIMORE CONVENTION CENTER, et al.

          Kehoe, Nazarian, Shaw Geter, JJ.

          OPINION

          NAZARIAN, J.

         A class of employees of the Baltimore Convention Center (the "Class") appeals the judgment of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City dismissing their claims against the City of Baltimore (the "City") and their union, AFSCME Local 44 (the "Union"). The Class had alleged that the City breached its contract with the Union by failing to properly pay overtime wages, that the Union had breached its duty of fair representation, and that the Union had interfered tortiously with the contract. The circuit court dismissed the complaint and we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Baltimore Convention Center ("the Convention Center") first opened in 1979 and is owned and operated by the City. Until late 2008, though, Convention Center employees were not covered by the same employment contract as most City employees, which took the form of a recurring memorandum of understanding ("MOU") between the City and the Union. The MOU requires the City to pay employees an increased overtime wage for time worked on sixth, seventh, and eighth consecutive days, and for odd-hour shifts. But because employment at the Convention Center regularly entails working weekend night shifts, and six, seven, or eight consecutive days to accomplish the Center's primary function (hosting conventions), Center employees originally were treated for overtime pay purposes as mayoral appointees, and paid according to the overtime provisions of the City's Administrative Manual, Section 205-2. For terms of employment other than overtime pay, Convention Center employees were treated "as if" they were covered by the MOU, even though they were not formally covered by it.

         As a result, Convention Center employees occupied a unique space on the City's payroll: they received most of the benefits built into the MOU, but weren't officially covered by it. And over time, this uniqueness led to frustration and grievance. Employees began challenging the arrangement in 2005; on August 22, 2008, at the employees' urging, the Union asked the City Labor Commissioner for a bargaining unit clarification that would bring Convention Center employees within the MOU. The City agreed. The City and the Union negotiated and, on October 22, 2008, concluded a new MOU for the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years ("FY") that included Convention Center employees as part of the bargaining unit.

         This didn't resolve all of the employees' concerns, though, so in 2009, the Union and the City exchanged correspondence and held meetings designed to address the employees' complaints, chief among them the issue of payment for consecutive day overtime under the MOU. The meetings culminated in an extended meeting on March 2, 2010, at which the Union and City reached an understanding that did not include payment of past consecutive day overtime pay for Center employees under the FY2009-10 MOU.

         Shortly after the conclusion of the 2009-2010 meetings, negotiations for the FY2011-12 MOU began, and they were tense. The Union claims that it pursued the consecutive day overtime pay issue on behalf of the Convention Center employees during negotiations, but the City opposed any change, especially in the light of the strain the Great Recession was putting on the City's budget. As the Union's counsel explained in a September 15, 2011 letter, this was "the second consecutive year in which most all City employees [] face[d] compulsory wage furloughs, " and that the City had "little funds to adjust discretionary economic issues."

         The negotiations for the FY2011-12 MOU took so long that agreed terms of the MOU went into effect before contentious terms were resolved. Ultimately, the new MOU did not change the terms regarding consecutive day overtime pay. The Union later explained to the Class that it had to relent on this issue in order to complete the MOU for all represented City employees. The MOU clarified the City's longstanding position on overtime pay in an addendum to the new MOU, executed on June 29, 2011, to the extent that it made explicit that "[t]he Convention Center shall continue to follow its existing pay practices including its method of calculating overtime." In addition, the FY2011-12 MOU contained one other relevant overtime provision, paragraph 15.E.2, that tracked the City's policy for mayoral employees (again, the source of the historic practice): "[w]here in the normal operation of a department, work is regularly scheduled on Saturdays and/or Sundays, no more than ten (10) days of work shall be scheduled for any employee in each fourteen (14) day period, unless there is an emergency or unforeseen circumstance." See Bureau of the Budget & Mgmt. Research, City of Balt., Administrative Manual, § 205-2 (1990).

         On July 6, 2012, the Class filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland against the Convention Center (a City agency) and its director for, among other claims, breach of contract. The court dismissed the case on December 10, 2012 on a variety of grounds, including the ground that the Class could not bring a breach of contract claim before exhausting administrative remedies. The Class then attempted an administrative remedy by submitting a class-based grievance to the Union. At the penultimate step in the grievance process, though, the Union decided, on June 21, 2013, not to pursue arbitration against the City, and sent the Class a long letter detailing its rationale.

         The Class responded to that setback on March 18, 2015 with the complaint underlying this appeal. The Class alleged claims of breach of contract against the City, "breach of the union representation agreement" against the Union, "tortious breach of the duty of fair representation" against the Union, and "tortious interference with the MOU contract" against the Union. The City filed a motion to dismiss on May 11, 2015. The court granted the City's motion to dismiss (or motion for summary judgment in the alternative) by oral ruling on June 29, 2015, and entered the accompanying written order on July 1, 2015. Without reaching the merits, the court dismissed the claims against the City because the Class had not satisfied the notice requirement of the Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA"), and dismissed the other claims as barred by the statute of limitations. This appeal followed.

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Class disputes that its claims are barred by threshold procedural defects, [1] and asks us to reverse for consideration of the merits. But although we have some doubt about whether the LGTCA applies to the Class's claims against the City, we have no doubt that the Class's claims against the City and the Union, whatever their merits, were long barred by ...


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