Friday, December 13, 2013
By TREVOR MAXWELL
Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. and the Portland Newspaper Guild, acting on the suggestion of a federal judge, have agreed to meet with an arbitrator as soon as possible to resolve a lawsuit filed over a contractual dispute.
U.S. District Judge George Singal was prepared to hear arguments in the case Wednesday afternoon. Instead, the judge sat down and talked with lawyers for both sides in his chambers. The parties agreed to cooperate, and Singal placed the lawsuit between the parties on hold.
''Rather than rule on the pending motions, he suggested that we stay the proceedings and work together toward arbitration,'' said Harry Korrell, a lawyer for Blethen Maine Newspapers.
Tom Bell, president of the guild, said the parties will try to put the matter before an arbitrator earlier than the Jan. 13 date already scheduled.
''We'll work in good faith to try to make this happen,'' Bell said.
Blethen Maine Newspapers owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, MaineToday.com and several non daily print publications.
Those properties have been for sale since March.
The company filed a lawsuit against the guild on June 17. The suit asks a federal judge to declare that a buyer of the newspapers would not be required to honor the terms and conditions of the labor contract that applies to about 300 members at the Press Herald/Telegram and MaineToday.com.
Failing that, the suit asks the judge, in the alternative, to force the union into immediate arbitration to settle the dispute.
Union leaders contend that a buyer of the newspapers must honor the terms of the contract. They had argued that the case should not be decided by a federal judge.
Based on the conference with the lawyers, Singal issued an order Wednesday afternoon that spelled out the requirements of both parties.
The lawsuit itself has been stayed, but the federal court will retain jurisdiction, Singal ordered.
All pending motions were dismissed without prejudice, except a motion filed by the union that asked the court to strike a section of the company's initial complaint. That motion was denied.
''As the court explained at the conference, the parties are free to renew these motions at any time or make additional motions if they believe the other side is not participating in the arbitration in good faith,'' Singal wrote in his order.
The judge said he will allow either party to file an emergency motion seeking relief, and he would act on such a motion quickly, if one side or the other doesn't comply.
Lastly, the parties are required to submit a status report to the court on Jan. 14, the day after the scheduled arbitration hearing.
The parties must inform the court whether they can arrange an earlier arbitration date.
Sarah Kerr Garraty, a lawyer and adjunct professor at Northeastern Law School in Boston, is the arbitrator selected by the parties through the American Arbitration Association. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Bell and Greg Kesich, the guild's vice president, said the union has asked Garraty to find an earlier date.
They were pleased that Singal did not find that the union had waived any rights to arbitrate the dispute.
''Our position has been that this belongs in front of an arbitrator, and not in court,'' Kesich said.
Press Herald Publisher Charles Cochrane said the company was pleased with the outcome of Wednesday's meeting.
''Because the court is retaining jurisdiction over this matter, the settlement achieves the company's primary goal of assuring that the guild cooperates with us in achieving a reasonably timely resolution to the contract language disagreement,'' Cochrane said in a statement e-mailed to all company employees. ''The resolution of this matter will help bring certainty that will hopefully allow us to advance the sale exploration process.''
In a telephone interview, Cochrane said it was a benchmark day in the three-month-old litigation.
''That has been our goal all along, to get a timely ruling,'' he said.
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: