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The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ruled that the Office of the Attorney General is not an employer under the state’s Wage Payment and Collection Law, in the third of a series of opinions that suggests any state-related agency cannot be sued for a violation of that law. The opinion in Harris v. Office of the Attorney General was an unpublished memorandum. Commonwealth Court Judges Bernard McGinley, the opinion author, and Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and Charles Mirarchi sat on the panel. The plaintiff, Charles Harris, worked for the Consumer Protection Bureau as an agent investigator until May 26, 1998. He filed a complaint with the Department of Labor alleging the OAG had not paid him overtime wages he was owed. After investigating the claim, the U.S. Department of Labor found that Harris was owed $12,551 in overtime pay, although it refused to file a claim against the OAG on Harris’ behalf. Harris filed a complaint in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, alleging the OAG violated the WPCL. The OAG countered that as a commonwealth agency, it is not included under the law’s definition of an “employer.” The OAG also claimed that under the collective bargaining agreement it has with the AFL-CIO, salary disputes must go through the formal grievance process, which ends with arbitration. Addressing the OAG’s first argument, McGinley said the WPCL defines an employer as “every person, firm, partnership, association, corporation, receiver or other officer of a court of this commonwealth and any agent or officer of any of the above-mentioned classes employing any person in this commonwealth.” McGinley noted a Commonwealth Court case from 1993 that was on point, Philipsburg-Osceola Education Association v. Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District. In that case, after members of the association went on strike, the school district took sums of money from the members’ paychecks for each day of the strike. The association alleged the school district violated the WPCL. The Philipsburg court based its ruling that the school district was not an employer under the WPCL on another Commonwealth Court decision, Huffman v. Borough of Millvale, from 1991, in which the judges said municipal corporations are not included in the WPCL’s definition of “employer.” “There is a clear distinction between municipal and private corporations and, if the Legislature wished the municipal corporations be covered by the [WPCL], it could have easily included them,” the Huffman court said. The Harris decision fell in line with both Huffman and Philipsburg. “Pursuant to Huffman and Philipsburg-Osceola, we decline to extend the WPCL to commonwealth agencies because the Legislature could and would have done so if that’s what it intended,” McGinley said. The OAG argued that even if it were considered an employer, the agreement it has with the AFL-CIO, which sets forth a five-step grievance process, controls. McGinley turned to the Huffman decision for guidance on this point as well. “Where the agreement states that arbitration is the exclusive forum for resolution of disputes based on the agreement’s terms, the trial court does not have jurisdiction,” the Huffman opinion said. McGinley said the agreement between the OAG and the AFL-CIO specifies arbitration as the appropriate forum for disputes.

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