SEPTA spent $423,000 on lawyers during labor negotiations

SEPTA spent $423,388 on outside labor counsel to handle negotiations with Transport Workers Union Local 234 (TWU) over the five-year contract agreed to after a six-day strike in November. The lead negotiators, Ballard Spahr, billed SEPTA $310,013 in 2016 for TWU-related matters, and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, which handled SEPTA’s failed attempt to win an emergency court injunction to stop the strike, billed $113,375.

TWU 234 mostly relied on their in house counsel, Bruce Bodner, who made $173,007 in 2015 according to an annual filing with the Department of Labor. Bodner handles most of the union’s legal matters, including representation of employees fighting their dismissal. When SEPTA tried to end the strike through a court injunction, TWU 234 also hired the labor law firm Willig, Williams & Davidson to fight the motion, paying it $20,488.

Leading up to the strike, both sides accused the other of unnecessary brinkmanship. During the strike, the finger pointing only intensified. Bodner and TWU President Willie Brown both explicitly blamed Ballard Spahr for the delays, saying the outside counsel exacerbated tensions to prolong negotiations, thereby running up their bill. SEPTA officials denied the allegation, saying TWU waited until the last second to submit proposals that significantly differed from previous labor contracts, requiring outside counsel to work around the clock to read and analyze the suggested changes.

SEPTA has around 7,000 unionized employees across 17 different bargaining units. TWU’s transit unit is the largest, representing 4,700 vehicle operators, cashiers and mechanics. They are all overseen by SEPTA’s Labor Relations office, led by Chief Labor Relations Office Stephanie Deiger. Deiger, a former Ballard Spahr associate, is one of two lawyers in the labor relations office. They, plus ten other labor relations managers, oversee contract negotiations with the unions and handle labor grievances filed by union employees.

Deiger defended the decision to rely on outside counsel for the TWU talks. “The TWU 234 contract negotiations get the most attention [because] they do set the pattern for other negotiations with other unions.” SEPTA other unions mainly follow TWU’s lead for their own collective bargaining agreements, effectively copying-and-pasting the terms and making small tweaks.

According to Deiger, almost all of SEPTA’s other labor talks are handled in-house; Buchanan Ingersoll handles negotiations with Regional Rail workers that can proceed to a Presidential Emergency Board under the federal Railway Labor Act. Deiger said it makes good sense to have Buchanan Ingersoll involved in the TWU 234 negotiations because that contract is the foundation for the later Regional Rail employee contracts.

Lawyers from Buchanan Ingersoll also represented SEPTA in the authority’s unsuccessful attempt to end the strike via a judicial injunction. That effort was overseen by SEPTA’s General Counsel, Gino Benedetti, who noted that Buchanan Ingersoll’s team had experience in seeking emergency injunctions to end labor walkouts.

Benedetti refused to divulge the hourly rates charged by Ballard or Buchanan Ingersoll, saying the authority negotiated competitive rates with a number of different law firms for different types of legal matters. In 2009, the Inquirer reported that SEPTA capped hourly rates at $250 per hour, except for Ballard Spahr lawyers working on labor negotiations—they got $300 per hour.

PlanPhilly obtained SEPTA’s outside counsel billing totals for matters related to TWU labor negotiations specifically, excluding amounts paid to Buchanan Ingersoll for Regional Rail negotiations in 2014 with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Since 2005, SEPTA has spent $2.385 million on Ballard Spahr and Buchanan Ingersoll attorneys for TWU labor negotiations, which averages out to $198,805 a year.

In addition to the Labor Relations board, SEPTA has its own lawyers in its office of general counsel, but most handle tort litigation. According to Benedetti, SEPTA’s general counsel office has 17 litigation lawyers, 7-8 corporate lawyers that handle transactions, and three that primarily handle employment disputes. Other staff, including video reviewers and insurance claim managers, brings the office total to around 120.

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