Declaratory judgment action concerning FLSA exemption dismissed on ripeness grounds

It’s fitting that our first-ever post is devoted to a case that was dismissed for lack of federal jurisdiction. The court’s decision serves as a reminder that the cases featured in this blog owe their federal existence to Article III of the U.S. Constitution and its “case or controversy” requirement.

The Spokane Valley Fire Department and its labor union, IAFF Local 3701, have been in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement since 2016. In 2017, the parties reached an impasse over whether the Fire Department’s battalion chiefs and fire marshals are exempt from certain wage and hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The battle lines were drawn as you might expect: the Fire Department argued that the battalion chiefs and fire marshals were exempt (and therefore not entitled to overtime pay); Local 3701 countered that these employees did not meet the criteria for the exemptions.

The Fire Department sought declaratory relief under Declaratory Judgement Act, urging the court to weigh in while the parties were still locked in contract negotiations. Local 3701 moved to dismiss the case for lack of an Article III case or controversy.

In a decision issued on April 18, Judge Mendoza sided with Local 3701 and dismissed the case on ripeness grounds. In Judge Mendoza’s view, the Fire Department was effectively seeking an advisory opinion on an issue that was “distant and uncertain.” Given that the parties might still reach an agreement on the exemption question during the course of their ongoing negotiations, he reasoned, there was no Article III case or controversy for the court to adjudicate.

The case was dismissed without prejudice, leaving the Fire Department free to invoke the court’s jurisdiction once again if the ripeness calculus changes.

The case is Spokane Valley Fire Department v. International Association of Fire Fighters AFL-CIO Local 3701, Case No. 17-CV-00250-SMJ. Local 3701 was represented by Mike McMahon, Ron Van Wert and Megan Clark of Etter McMahon Lamberson Van Wert & Oreskovich.