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The West Virginia House of Delegates rejected a bill Friday that would have put public employees who filed and then lost official grievances at risk of paying up to $1,000 if the administrative law judge hearing the grievance found it “lacked any basis in fact or law.”

In either chamber of the Legislature, it’s rare for any legislation to make it to a final vote only to be publicly shot down. The vote was 61-39 to kill the bill, but it could be resurrected by the time the regular legislative session ends Saturday night.

Voting for the bill were all the Republican leaders of the full House above the assistant majority whip level. Voting against it were all 22 Democrats, joined by 39 Republicans, including delegates who chair prominent committees: Bill Anderson, R-Wood; Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell; and Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.

Grievances are an opportunity for public employees, including teachers and other state employees, to win disputes against their employer without having to sue in court. The process can be faster and less expensive for workers than filing a lawsuit, although either side can appeal at the end to the courts.

Grievance rulings have included one, in 2020, that the Kanawha County school system’s selection of South Charleston High’s then-principal was, more likely than not, tainted by bias and discrimination; and one, in 2019, granting partial victory to Boone County school workers who objected to substantial pay and benefit cuts.

An administrative law judge oversees the hearing at the final level of this Public Employees Grievance Board process and issues rulings. The bill would have allowed these judges to order workers to pay up to $1,000 in attorney’s fees to the government agency they lost the grievance against, or vice versa.

The judge could have ordered this if he or she concluded the losing side “presented a grievance or defense which lacked any basis in fact or law, was not brought in good faith, or was brought with malice or wrongful purpose, including, but not limited to, delay or harassment.”

The legislation also would have barred workers from filing grievances over actions their employees took “related to declared states of preparedness or states of emergency.” That includes West Virginia’s declared state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred multiple workplace changes.

Additionally, the bill would have banned grievances “relating to the protected classes” under the state Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Commission has its own hearing process.

The legislation also would have added facets making the quasi-judicial grievance process more like a regular lawsuit.

Those additions would have included the ability for both sides to file motions to dismiss, default victories if required response times are missed and the right to ask administrative law judges for time extensions — instead of both sides having to agree on that.

The House Judiciary Committee eked the bill out on a 13-12 vote earlier this week. The Senate passed it 23-11 on an almost party-line vote. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voted with the Democrats against it and Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, voted with Republicans for it.

Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or ryan.quinn@hd Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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