Jersey City’s PLA Ordinance Found Preempted by NLRA and ERISA and Void Ab Initio

On June 15 U.S. District Court Judge Wigenton determined that Jersey City’s ordinance, in effect since 2007 and providing for tax abatements for real estate developers that sign Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and void ab initio. The Jersey City Ordinance mandated that tax abatement recipients sign PLAs that contain no-strike and no-lockout provisions and therefore Jersey City’s Ordinance “directly intrudes on §7 and §8 of the NLRA.” The Court also held that the PLA ordinance’s attempt to regulate the operation and reporting of apprenticeship programs intruded upon and therefore was preempted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. v. Jersey City, No. 14-5445 (D.N.J. 2017).

This order is the most recent development in the action’s two-year history, as the case has bounced from court to court. In August 2015 the Contractors association, made up of non-union or “merit shop” contractors, brought suit alleging that Jersey City’s PLA ordinance was preempted by federal law. In August 2015 the District Court dismissed the complaint finding that Jersey City acted as a market participant, and not as a market regulator, and therefore the federal preemption doctrine did not apply to the ordinance. An appeal to the Third Circuit followed and in June 2016 the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and held that Jersey City was, in fact, a market regulator in its enforcement of the PLA ordinance. The Third Circuit found that the preemption analysis should be applied to the ordinance and remanded the case back to the District Court to apply the preemption analysis. Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. v. Jersey City (3d Cir. 2016). On remand, the Contractors association moved the District Court for judgment on the pleadings. Judge Wigenton granted the motion, voided the ordinance ab initio and ruled that “enforcement of the PLA Ordinance on any tax-abated project is enjoined.”

The practical impact of this ruling is to level the playing field for non-union and unionized developers and construction contractors competing for work on tax-abated projects. The Contractors association claimed that the PLA ordinance had the effects of setting 100% of the tax-abatement project work aside for 15% of the construction workforce, and driving up construction costs, which Jersey City’s taxpayers had to bear in the form of tax abatements. Now, Jersey City cannot require developers or construction contractors to sign PLAs with the Hudson County Building and Construction Trades Council in exchange for tax abatements and the opportunity to work on tax-abated projects. The Court voided the PLA ordinance ab initio, not prospectively. This suggests that on tax-abated projects that are now under way with PLAs in place, general contractors will revisit the process for selecting subcontractors with more discretion to select non-union subcontractors to perform project work.

Also an open question is how Judge Wigenton’s decision will affect similar tax-abatement ordinances in other municipalities that impose PLA requirements. Questions relating to this important decision and the path forward for developers and contractors in Jersey City and elsewhere in the state may be directed to any partner in our firm’s Labor Law Practice Group – James McGovern III, Patrick McGovern, Douglas Solomon, and John Vreeland.

Third Circuit Deals Blow to Jersey City Ordinance Requiring PLAs on Privately Funded Projects in Exchange for Tax Abatements

Jersey City’s Municipal Code offers real estate developers generous tax exemptions that are designed to spur the City’s economic growth, but the tax incentives have strings attached. Specifically, to receive a tax exemption, even on a privately funded project, the developer must agree to use the City-approved project labor agreement (“PLA”), which is a pre-hire agreement that favors unionized contractors and subcontractors. On September 12, 2016, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated claims against Jersey City that its tax exemption ordinance mandating PLAs is preempted by the National Labor Relations Act and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and violates the dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Now the case returns to the District Court for a determination whether Jersey City’s PLA requirement is unlawful. The Court was careful to explain that its ruling has nothing to do with public construction projects, and is limited to the City’s attempted regulation of privately funded projects. Associated Builders and Contractors v. City of Jersey City, No. 15-3166 (3rd Cir. Sept. 12, 2016).

By imposing the PLA requirement on privately funded projects that sought tax abatements, the Third Circuit found that Jersey City “require[d] that an employer negotiate with a labor union and that all employees be represented by that labor union as part of the negotiations— even if the developers, contractors, and subcontractors do not ordinarily employ unionized labor and the employees are not union members.” In addition, the City’s standard PLA requires that employers and unions agree not to strike or lock-out during construction, and agree to sponsor or participate in apprenticeship programs.

The Court of Appeals found that the three laws allegedly violated by Jersey City’s ordinance — the NLRA, ERISA and the Commerce Clause — “share the same threshold requirement before their constraints are triggered: that the allegedly unlawful act by the state or local government be regulatory in nature,” as opposed to action by a market participant. The Court determined that Jersey City is not a market participant because the City “is not selling or providing any goods or services with respect to Tax Abated Projects, nor acting as an investor, owner, or financier with respect to those projects.” Invoking Supreme Court precedent, the Court rejected the City’s claim that offering tax abatements gives the City a proprietary interest in the project. The Court found that the City acted instead as a market regulator and since the ordinance strips employers and employees of the economic weapons of strikes and lockouts, and relates to employee benefit plans, the City’s ordinance may indeed be preempted by the NLRA and by ERISA. Finally, by enacting “regulatory measures designed to benefit in-state economic interests by burdening out of state competitors,” the ordinance arguably violates the dormant Commerce Clause.

Absent a request for rehearing or a petition for rehearing en banc, this case will return to the District Court for a determination whether the PLA requirements in the City’s tax exemption ordinance are enforceable. The larger questions are whether PLAs now in place on privately funded projects in Jersey City will remain in effect and, if not, whether this affects developers’ tax exemptions. Also an open question is whether the Third Circuit’s decision affects similar tax exemption ordinances in other municipalities that impose PLA requirements. Questions relating to this important decision and the path forward for developers in Jersey City and elsewhere in the state may be directed to any partner in our firm’s Labor Law Practice Group – James McGovern III, Patrick McGovern, Douglas Solomon, and John Vreeland.