Fresno County court sues union in attempt to end court reporter strike

SEIU court strike continues

SEIU Local 521's Denise Dedmon and Riko Mendez offer an update on the Fresno County Superior Court worker strike Friday afternoon, Jan. 18, 2019 in Fresno.
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SEIU Local 521's Denise Dedmon and Riko Mendez offer an update on the Fresno County Superior Court worker strike Friday afternoon, Jan. 18, 2019 in Fresno.

The Fresno County Superior Court filed a lawsuit against the union representing its court reporters in an ongoing labor strike, claiming the union violated a previous agreement and asking a judge to deem the strike illegal.

The lawsuit, filed in the Fresno court on Thursday, asks for a judge to issue a temporary restraining order and instruct the Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents the court reporters, to end the strike. The strike began Tuesday with an estimated 200-250 employees walking off the job.

“The strike against the court is unlawful under the common law because it hinders, delays, and interferes with the court’s duties and obligations to administer justice and to provide essential services,” wrote Bay Area attorney Suzanne Price, who represents the Fresno court.

The lawsuit does not accuse the SEIU of breaking any specific coded law. It instead references common law, which refers to non-codified legal precedents established over several centuries.

It is unclear whether the court will be able to render judgment on a case in which it is also the plaintiff. A hearing was scheduled for Friday, but it is not known whether it took place. The court’s online records have not been updated over the holiday weekend.

A spokeswoman for the court, its attorney and the SEIU attorney did not respond to phone messages left on Monday, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Denise Dedmon, a court reporter and the SEIU chapter president, called the legal action “a trick to silence us.”

“It is unfortunate that management is more focused on using legal tactics to further silence the voice of our members than working towards an agreement which increases fair and equal access to justice for Fresno,” Dedmon said. “This type of behavior from management is exactly what led us to this point.”

The union notified the court of its intent to strike on Jan. 10. According to the lawsuit, negotiators for both sides had previously reached a tentative labor contract agreement, but the SEIU members voted not to ratify it.

The SEIU represents court reporters, judicial assistants, court office assistants, account clerks and child custody recommending counselors. Many could be seen holding signs and chanting outside the court last week, joined at times by various local politicians and labor leaders.

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Each job classification has a specific set of demands, which include increased pay and more hours in the work week.

The court offered a 3 percent pay increase and a one-time payment of $500, saying that was all it could afford under its current budget.

Both sides resumed negotiations on Friday, but a deal has not yet been reached.

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The court’s lawsuit also accused the union of violating an agreement made on Jan. 13 in which it would provide eight certified court reporters to the court during any work stoppage between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15.

On Thursday, five of these eight reporters walked off the job, the lawsuit claimed.

According to the lawsuit, the court “cannot timely administer justice in certain criminal and civil matters without a minimum number of court reporters.” Several employees signed declarations stating they had reached out to various court reporter agency in California, Oregon and Arizona in an attempt to hire contract workers but were not successful.

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It notes the court’s various duties. These include hearing criminal cases within legal required time periods and rendering immediate judgment on time-sensitive issues such as child custody and endangerment situations or cases in which crimes have a statute of limitations.

“This work stoppage will result in the shut down of court operations; cause irreparable and serious injury, damage and expense to the court and to the public at large; pose an imminent threat to public health and safety; and will continue to pose such threat unless restrained and enjoined immediately by order of this reviewing court,” the lawsuit says.

Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.