Union Can Be Forced To Make Public Records Act Request

Rule 106 of the Sheriff’s Department of Ingham County, Michigan forbids members from disclosing Department documents without the permission of the Sheriff. On March 11, 2003, Laurie Siegrist, the president of Lodge 141 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), received an e-mail from her lieutenant requiring detectives to carry a pager. Siegrist faxed the letter to the FOP’s attorney, who sent the Department a demand to collectively bargain over the issue.

The Department responded by issuing Siegrist a verbal warning for violating Rule 106. The warning stated: “Even though you are the Union president you do not have the right to freely distribute Department memo’s [sic] and/or documents. It is not for you to decide which documents are to be made public. Your Union has the ability to request public documents and certainly knows the procedure for doing this.” The FOP filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the County, alleging that the issuance to Siegrist of a verbal reprimand discriminated against her because of her Union activities and unlawfully interfered in the internal activities of the FOP. When Michigan’s Employment Relations Commission (ERC) upheld the unfair labor practice complaint, the County appealed.

In a 2-1 decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the ERC, and found that the County did not violate the law. While acknowledging that the subject of the memorandum – the requirement that detectives carry their pagers while off duty – was a mandatory subject of bargaining, the Court found that the FOP had other means of obtaining the document:

“As the County points out, in the event Siegrist made a proper request under the work rules and such request was denied, the Public Employment Relations Act (PERA) and the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provide appropriate avenues for resolution of disputes regarding disclosure of public sector employer documents. Under the PERA, a public employer’s failure to comply with the Union’s request for the release of non-protected information constitutes an unfair labor practice. Further, the FOIA requires the full disclosure of public records, subject only to narrowly construed exemptions. Thus, we cannot conclude that the Sheriff’s application of Rule 106 constitutes an unfair labor practice because application of the Rule does not unreasonably restrict the Union’s ability to represent its members and effectively enforce the terms of the labor agreement. While Rule 106 may make Union activity slightly less convenient, the Rule does not inhibit protected activity.”

The dissenting judge disagreed with the Court’s conclusion that the enforcement of Rule 106 did not chill the exercise of protected rights: “Disciplining Siegrist for giving the memo to the Union attorney most certainly had an adverse effect on her ability to engage in concerted activity under the PERA. Requiring her to file under the FOIA would have alerted the Sheriff to her efforts to communicate with the Union attorney and hindered her ability to seek legal advice in confidence without having to first alert a potential adverse party.”

Ingham County v. Capitol City Lodge No. 141 of the Fraternal Order of Police, 2007 WL 987014 (Mich.App. 2007).

This article appears in the July 2007 issue