All posts by John Becker

Massachusetts Appeals Court Provides Another Reason For Employees To Join A Union

A recent decision of the Massachusetts Appeals Court provides a warning to employees: some state laws that appear to provide protections to employees cannot be enforced by employees who have suffered abuses. The case provides an excellent example of why joining a union provides employees with better protections from overreaching employers than state laws and the court system.

One of the benefits of being in a union is that you can file grievances under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between your union and your employer. The grievance procedure normally covers any violations of the CBA and the CBA usually contains provisions that set your wages, hours and many of the terms and conditions of your job. Going through the grievance procedure (which usually ends with final and binding arbitration by an arbitrator picked by the union and the employer) means you don’t have to go out and get a lawyer, or go to a state agency on your own. Although the union does have control over which cases to take to arbitration, clear violations of the CBA will normally be resolved through the grievance process – either at or before arbitration.

Employees who are not in unions have to rely on a complicated web of state laws – some incorporated in statutes, others embodied in judicial decisions (also known as the “common law”) – to enforce their rights. In some cases, they have to prosecute their claims through state or federal agencies or in state or federal court. These processes are almost always lengthy and complicated, and they usually require the employee to hire a lawyer at his or her own expense.

The recent Appeals Court case of Tortolano v. Lemuel Shattuck Hospital (Tortolano) demonstrates that, even when there appears to be a state law that protects employees, there may be no procedure for employees to use that law in their favor. Tortolano, which was decided by the Massachusetts Appeals Court on August 20, 2018, provides an excellent example of a state law that is not what it seems. Section 30B of Chapter 149 of the Massachusetts General Laws requires employers to pay overtime pay at time and a half for certain non-exempt Massachusetts employees. Andrea M. Tortolano, an employee of the state-run Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, believed that she had not been paid proper overtime for time when she was on call in violation of Section 30B. She went to the Attorney General’s office, which gave her a letter saying that it was not going to pursue the matter, but giving Ms. Tortolano the right to sue for a violation of the statute on her own behalf. But when Tortolano sued, her employer argued that Chapter 149, Section 30B did not give private individuals the right to sue for violation of the law. The only entity that could sue an employer for violating Section 30B was the Attorney General’s office. A judge in the Superior Court agreed with the hospital and dismissed the case, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed the decision. The Appeals Court essentially held that the Attorney General’s “right to sue” letter wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Because the Attorney General decided not to sue, Ms. Tortolano was out of luck.

In reaching the conclusion that individual employees could not sue under the overtime law, the Appeals Court relied on the SJC’s earlier decision in Salvas v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 452 Mass. 337 (2008). In that case, the state’s highest court ruled that there was no private right of action for employees to sue an employer who failed to provide a meal break as required by Section 100 of Chapter 149. The logic of both Tortolano and Salvas is that because some of the provisions of Chapter 149 specifically permit employees to sue on their own (such as Section 148, which provides for timely payment of wages), the provisions that don’t specifically give individual employee the right to sue are only enforceable by the Attorney General.

The lesson of Tortolano and Salvas for unionized employees is this: don’t assume that a statutory right is enforceable on your own. You are better off negotiating these statutory provisions into your CBA and using the grievance procedure (including binding arbitration) to enforce them, thus avoiding the overworked and expensive court and agency processes.

The lesson for non-unionized employees is even clearer: organize!

Read the decision here.

Equal Pay For Men And Women Doing Comparable Work: A New Massachusetts Law Takes Effect

On July 1, 2018 a new comprehensive pay equity law took effect in Massachusetts that seeks to eradicate the wage disparities between women and men working in the Commonwealth. See Mass. Gen. Laws c. 149, § 105A, as amended by St. 2016, c. 177, § 2. The new law, which amended an earlier version passed in 1945, is a comprehensive attempt to bring women’s wages to the same level as men’s. According to recent statistics, the average full-time working woman in Massachusetts makes only 84.3 % of the average full-time working man. In addition to making it easier for employees to make claims for unequal pay based on gender, the law also makes it unlawful for employers to prevent their employees from talking about their pay, and prohibits employers from asking about your pay history when you apply for a job.

To understand the background of this significant change in the law, it is necessary to go back to 1945, when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to enact a law prohibiting employers from paying men and women differently for comparable work. St. 1945, c. 584, § 3. The only exception provided in the law was for pay differences based on seniority. In 1963, the federal government passed a narrower version of the law, which required equal pay for men and women, but only if they were doing equal work, that is, work that required “equal skill, effort, and responsibility” and was “performed under similar working conditions.” 29 U.S.C.A. § 206(d). The federal law had four exceptions: (1) seniority; (2) merit; (3) quantity or quality of production; or (4) “any other factor other than sex.”

After 1963, inquiring minds wanted to know: What’s the difference between the federal law (equal pay for equal work) and the earlier Massachusetts law (equal pay for comparable work)? In the 1990s, a group of food service workers in the Everett Public Schools, with the support of a union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, decided to find out what “comparable” really meant. The food service workers, who were all women, claimed that they performed work that was comparable to the school janitors, who were all men, but were paid less. After a lengthy trial, a Superior Court judge found in favor of the food service workers. Applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge found that the food service workers and the janitors performed work that required comparable skill, effort, responsibility and was performed under comparable working conditions. The judge ordered the employer to pay the food service workers the same as the janitors.

The School Committee appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Court, which reversed the lower court. The SJC in 1995 (and again in 1998) ruled that the judge had applied the wrong legal standard to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act. See Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 421 Mass. 482 (1995) and Jancey v. School Committee of Everett, 427 Mass. 603 (1998). According to the SJC, after applying the four-part test of the federal law, the judge should have applied a fifth test: Were the job duties of the positions being compared similar enough to make comparison practical? Janitors and food service workers have very different job duties, the SJC found, and the law was not intended to compare different types of jobs in this way.

Supporters of equal pay drafted legislation to overturn the result in Jancey, but it wasn’t until 2014 that their efforts came to fruition with the passage of An Act to Establish Pay Equity, which took effect at the beginning of this month. The law retains the standard of equal pay for comparable work, but it defines the standard in a way that removes the fifth test set out in Jancey and effectively overrules that case.

Under the new version of the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), nearly every employer in Massachusetts (except certain domestic and agricultural workers, and federal employees) must pay men and women the same in all aspects of wages and benefits if their jobs require comparable skill, effort and responsibility, and are performed under similar working conditions. There is no requirement that the difference in pay be intentional or the result of discriminatory animus; this is a strict liability standard. An aggrieved employee may file a complaint with the Attorney General or may go directly into Superior Court to challenge a violation of the law. The employee does not need to file a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to challenge an equal pay violation. If the employee succeeds in proving a violation of the law, she is entitled to: (1) the difference in pay going back a maximum of three years; (2) an equal amount in liquidated damages; and (3) reasonable attorneys fees and costs. A complaint must be filed within three years of an employer’s action creating the pay discrepancy or within three years of the employee’s most recent paycheck. NOTE: The employer cannot eliminate gender-based differences in pay by reducing anyone’s pay.

While the new law gives MEPA new life after the Jancey case effectively killed it, it also gives employers new defenses that didn’t exist in the previous law. For example, a difference in pay between men and women does not violate MEPA if it is made pursuant to any of the following reasons:

  1. a seniority system (but employee seniority can’t be affected by pregnancy or family and medical leave);
  2. a merit system;
  3. a system that rewards quality or quantity of production;
  4. the geographic location of the work (if based on legitimate regional differences);
  5. education, training or experience (if reasonably related to the job); or
  6. travel (if travel is a regular and necessary aspect of the job; commuting not included).

There is also an affirmative defense in the law for employers, who can successfully oppose a MEPA claim if they can show:

  1. They conducted a good faith, reasonable self-evaluation of their pay practices;
  2. The evaluation is reasonable in detail and scope;
  3. The evaluation was conducted within three years prior to the filing of the complaint; and
  4. The employer can show reasonable progress towards eliminating any gender-based wage differentials revealed by the evaluation.

In addition to toughening up MEPA, the new law also includes provisions regarding employee and employer discussions of pay and pay history. The law requires employers to allow their employees to discuss their pay with co-workers, or anyone else, for that matter. (The idea here is that allowing employers to gag their employees allows the perpetuation of discriminatory pay practices.) At the same time, the law prohibits employers from disclosing employee pay and salary information to others unless (1) the employee affirmatively consents or (2) the information is a public record, as with public employees.

Furthermore, the law attempts to cut down on the perpetuation of discriminatory practices by prohibiting employers from asking prospective employees about their past salary or salary history. There are exceptions here too:

  1. the employer can confirm prior wage history with former employers if the prospective employee voluntarily provides information about prior pay;
  2. the employer can ask a prospective employee his or her salary expectations for the new position, as long as it doesn’t ask where the expectation came from; and
  3. the employer can ask for prior pay information once it has made a job offer with a compensation package.

For more detailed information about the new law, see the Attorney General’s Overview and Frequently Asked Questions.

The passage of the new, improved MEPA proves that where there is significant opposition to a court interpretation of a law, the legislative process, while sometimes slow, can act to amend the law and effectively overrule the court. Although the neutrality of the court system and its ability to interpret the laws remain intact, the democratically-elected representatives of the people get the last word.

The At-Will Employment Rule Is The Disease And Unions Are The Cure

Imagine this scenario: You have a pretty good job in the private sector. You’ve been working there a while and have been making fairly good money. You have received good reviews and haven’t been disciplined. One day, your boss walks in and says, “You’re fired.” When you ask, “Why?”, your boss says, “No reason.” For the vast majority of employees in the United States today, this scenario – while perhaps unlikely – is perfectly legal.

The dirty little secret of the American workplace is the at-will employment rule, which governs the majority of non-government jobs (and a fair number of public sector jobs as well). According to this rule, an at-will employee can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all.

I can hear the protests from employers: if I fired someone for no reason, they’ll sue me. Yes, maybe. But would they win? Unless there are special circumstances (see discussion below), in many cases, the employer would win. What is your legal claim? What law did your employer violate? There is a very good chance that the termination of your employment didn’t violate any laws at all.

Are there exceptions to the at-will employment rule? Yes. The first and best exception is for union employees. Nearly every union contract contains two provisions that take the at-will employment rule and throw it out with the trash: first, a provision stating that employees may only be discharged for just cause, and second, a grievance-arbitration procedure providing that a neutral third party decides whether the employer had just cause to fire you. Not only do these contractual provisions establish a valuable set of workers’ rights, they also avoid the need to sue your employer. Instead of sending individual employees to sue in court, the collective bargaining agreement provides an in-house mechanism that is (usually) cheaper and quicker than litigation for determining whether your termination was just or unjust.

What about negotiating a better deal on your own? A few select high-powered employees with special skills have the clout to negotiate individual employment contracts, and most of those contracts include just cause protection. But the vast majority of non-union workers don’t have many options to fight arbitrary employer behavior, and most of those choices involve getting a lawyer and going to court – an expensive and time-consuming process in a judicial system that is increasingly unfriendly to the underdogs of society.

In rare cases, the requirement of just cause for termination has been adopted through legislation. If you live in Montana or Puerto Rico, you are in luck – those jurisdictions have laws requiring employers to have just cause for firing an employee. In other states, the courts have constructed various exceptions to the at-will rule in limited situations. There is a public policy exception, which has been adopted by the majority of states, including Massachusetts. According to the public policy exception, an employer cannot fire an employee when the termination would violate a well-defined and explicit public policy. This exception has been applied to cases in which employees were discharged for filing workers’ compensation claims, serving on juries or refusing to commit perjury for the employer. There is the implied contract exception, which all but 12 states have adopted. Under this exception, courts have found that statements made to employees by employers, usually in job handbooks and other writings, may create a promise that the employee will only be fired for good cause. Such documents may also bind the employer to follow certain procedures before firing an employee. The most far-reaching and least common exception is the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, which has been adopted by Massachusetts and 10 other states. According to this doctrine, an employer must act in good faith in making employment decisions. The implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing prohibits an employer from firing an employee for a bad reason – such as to avoid paying the employee a commission – but does not go so far as to require the employer to have a good reason for firing someone.

But what about all the laws out there protecting workers from unfair treatment, you might ask. Yes, but. Each of these laws has a very specific target and procedure, and courts and government agencies have in some cases created significant hurdles to winning a claim. So, for example, if you are fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on your employer’s illegal or unsafe actions, you may be protected. If you are fired in retaliation for exercising your rights under some other statute (such as filing a discrimination complaint or trying to organize a union), you may be protected. If you are fired because of your race, sex, ethnicity, religion, age, disability (or perceived disability), sexual orientation, veteran’s status or other specific category, you may be protected. But ask any employment lawyer whether it is easy it is to win a discrimination lawsuit: even in cases where there seems to be blatant bias, complicated legal rules can keep justice out of reach or delay the outcome for years.

So, yes, there are many different ways the law protects workers from unfair treatment, but most of these statutes and common law exceptions to the at-will employment rule do not address the scenario set out at the beginning of this article. Let’s say the boss is telling the truth when he or she says, “I don’t have a reason” and can prove it in court. Unlikely? Perhaps. Even the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing – if you’re lucky enough to be in a state that has adopted it, like Massachusetts – may not be enough to protect you. And what if the boss does have a reason that has nothing to do with any of the protected categories set out above? It doesn’t have to be a good reason, as long as there is no evidence of bad faith. Your performance isn’t up to snuff, or you’ve broken a company rule. You and the boss are having a personality conflict. Or maybe you’re just not on the A Team, not among the boss’s favorites. None of these reasons, on its face, is illegal, at least in most jurisdictions. If you don’t have a union to protect you, you may be out of luck. Unless, of course, you live in Montana.

BPPA Wins at SJC: Court Upholds Arbitration Award Reinstating Boston Police Officer

Arbitrator Found That Officer David Williams Did Not Use Excessive Force During Arrest

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has ruled in favor of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (“BPPA”) and against the City of Boston in a major case that tested the limits of the non-delegable management rights doctrine. In City of Boston v. BPPA, which was decided by a unanimous court on July 12, 2017 (Hines, J. writing the opinion), the SJC affirmed a labor arbitrator’s award ordering the City to reinstate wrongly discharged Boston Police Officer David Williams. The City appealed to the SJC after a Superior Court judge affirmed the arbitrator’s award. Attorney Alan H. Shapiro, a partner with Sandulli Grace, P.C., represented the BPPA in the arbitration and court proceedings with the assistance of Sandulli Grace attorney John M. Becker.

The case began in the early morning hours of March 16, 2009 when Officer Williams and another Boston Police Officer reported to the North End for a traffic dispute. When a St. Patrick’s Day reveler became unruly and refused to leave the street, the other officer attempted to arrest him, but the man began to fight back and resist. Officer Williams came to the assistance of his fellow officer and subdued the unruly gentleman while the man’s two friends attempted to interfere. An initial perfunctory investigation by the Boston Police Department (“BPD”) into the incident did not reach any conclusions, but after the man filed a lawsuit, the BPD resumed investigating, placed Officer Williams on administrative leave in 2011 and eventually concluded that he had used excessive force during the arrest and had been untruthful about his actions. The BPD discharged Officer Williams in January 2012, almost three years after the incident.

The BPPA grieved the discharge under the collective bargaining agreement with the City, in which the parties have agreed that the BPD must have just cause to discharge a police officer and that the ultimate decision on whether the BPD has just cause is for a neutral arbitrator selected by mutual agreement of the City and BPPA. The BPPA argued that Officer Williams used appropriate force under the circumstances and was truthful in reporting his actions. After three days of hearing, the arbitrator rejected the City’s position that Officer Williams had used excessive force, finding instead that Williams had used appropriate force during the arrest and was truthful about his actions during the investigation. The arbitrator also found that the investigation was excessively lengthy and included arbitrary delays. He ordered the City to reinstate Officer Williams with full back pay and benefits, including back detail and overtime pay for the excessively long administrative leave.

The City appealed the arbitrator’s decision to Superior Court and then, after losing there, to the Supreme Judicial Court. The City argued that the non-delegable management rights doctrine, as embodied in the law known as the Commissioner’s Statute, prohibited arbitrators from contradicting the Boston Police Commissioner’s determination that an officer had used excessive force. In effect, the City argued that discipline and discharge were not subject to collective bargaining and that an arbitrator could not decide whether the City had just cause to discharge Officer Williams. The SJC was not willing to extend the management rights doctrine into the “core matters of discipline and discharge”, standards for which have always been subject to collective bargaining.

In reaching its conclusion, the SJC relied in part on a 1998 amendment to G.L. c. 150E, § 7(d), the law that enumerates which laws and regulations are superseded by collective bargaining agreements in the event of a conflict. The 1998 amendment, which was sponsored and supported by the BPPA, with the assistance of attorneys from Sandulli Grace, added the regulations of police commissioners to the list. The SJC found that this amendment gave arbitrators the right to interpret regulations promulgated by the Boston Police Commissioner pursuant to the Commissioner’s Statute and further found that where the arbitrator’s interpretation conflicted with the Commissioner’s, the arbitrator’s must prevail.

The SJC also took the opportunity to criticize the BPD for its handling of the investigation, noting that both the accused police officer and the public were disserved by the mishandling of the case and the lengthy delays in the investigation.

Sandulli Grace congratulates Officer Williams and his family on this victory and also the BPPA and its President, Pat Rose, who have supported Officer Williams throughout this long ordeal.

SJC Rules Workers’ Comp Benefits are Not Compensation for Services Rendered

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision today (May 16th, 2017) that will further protect workers who are injured on the job and ensure that they continue receiving their workers’ compensation benefits even if they are suspended. The SJC overturned the decision of the Superior Court and reinstated the original ruling from the Department of Industrial Accidents, granting a former Boston EMS worker his workers’ compensation benefits. The case was handled by John Becker, Of Counsel to Sandulli Grace, he received assistance from former Sandulli Grace Attorney Jamie Goodwin who argued the case below.

The plaintiff in the case, Brian Benoit, had been an EMT and paramedic with Boston EMS for almost 20 years when he injured his ankle while transporting a patient. Unable to work, he filed for and received workers’ compensation benefits for almost a year under the Massachusetts workers’ Compensation Statute. Mass. G. L. c. 152. Boston EMS halted his workers’ comp payments in August of 2012, arguing that injury was not accidental. Benoit seeking to have his benefits reinstated, filed a complaint at the DIA in October of 2012. Shortly thereafter Benoit was indicted in an unrelated matter, and Boston EMS promptly placed him on suspension in accordance with G. L. c. 268A § 25. Under G. L. c. 268A § 25 public employees are barred from receiving compensation while on suspension. In addition to their argument that the injury was not accidental, Boston EMS also argued that Benoit’s workers’ compensation benefits constituted compensation for services and were therefore not obligated to pay them under the statute. The DIA ruled that Boston EMS had impermissibly denied Benoit his rightful workers’ comp benefits and ordered that they be reinstated. Boston EMS refused to comply with the order and appealed the decision in Superior Court, Benoit also filed an action in Superior Court to inforce the decision of the DIA.

The Superior Court determined workers’ compensation payments constituted compensation and granted the Motion to Dismiss brought by Boston EMS, Benoit appealed that decision. After pleading guilty and subsequently resigning from Boston EMS, Benoit refiled an action in Superior Court alleging that since he was no longer suspended, the suspension statute should no longer apply. The Superior Court disagreed with him once again, stating that since he was suspended at the time of his resignation he was still considered to be suspended. Benoit consolidated both of his appeals and the SJC removed the case from the Appellate court. While the SJC denied Benoit’s first two claims, they agreed with him that the workers’ Compensation Statute was not proscribed by the suspension statute.

workers’ Compensation in Massachusetts was originally enacted in 1911, and the statutory scheme protects workers who are injured while on the job. It allows the injured party to remain financially stable while protecting the employer from prohibitively costly settlements and judgments. When an employee pursues a workers’ compensation claim, they forfeit their right to sue their employer for damages. The no-fault system creates certainty for all parties, the injured employee knows the benefits they will receive and the employer knows what they are liable for. The act also mandates that every employer obtain workers’ compensation insurance from an insurer who will make the payments or obtain licensing as a self-insurer. If the employer chooses a third-party insurer, that insurer will be the one to pay out the workers’ compensation benefits. However, if the employer chooses to be self-insured, as Boston EMS did, they will be liable for all workers compensation payments. Employees can also opt out of the system in order to retain their right to sue, but they must do so at their time of hire. An injured employee will receive medical costs and weekly payments based on salary for a period of time depending on the nature and seriousness of their injury. The SJC decided this case on whether those payments consisted of compensation for services rendered.

While the court acknowledged that compensation is usually interpreted broadly, they recognized the limitations in G. L. c. 268A § 1(a) which defines compensation as any money, thing of value or benefit conferred or given to a person in return for services rendered. The restriction of ‘in return for services rendered’ became the deciding factor in this case. The SJC determined that workers’ compensation benefits are not conferred upon an injured employee for services rendered but because the employee waives the right to sue in order to guarantee benefits when he or she is injured. They differentiated the workers’ compensation act from other forms of compensation such as sick pay and unemployment insurance. The SJC also differentiated workers compensation benefits as they were outside the purview of the employer-employee relationship and instead based on the relationship between the employee and the insurer. The court specifically discussed the differences between workers’ compensation benefits and unemployment benefits. Unlike workers’ comp, the employee is not required to give up either their rights or money to receive unemployment. Unemployment benefits serve as a recognition of the services the employee performed while working and are directly tied to the employer who fund the unemployment insurance mechanism.

This ruling provides substantial protections for workers who are hurt on the job. Employer’s and insurance companies will be barred from denying payments due to a suspension stemming from misconduct. Employees will have the peace of mind that even if they are suspended while they are out of work they are still entitled to receive their workers’ compensation benefits.

Read The Decision

MassCOP Scores Another Victory: Superior Court Orders Town of Middleton to Reinstate Wrongfully-Terminated Police Officer

Town Cannot Use Lack of License to Carry Firearms as Excuse to Avoid Complying with Arbitrator’s Award

An Essex Superior Court judge ruled late last month that the Town of Middleton, Massachusetts must reinstate a wrongfully-terminated police officer, even though the Middleton Police Chief has suspended the officer’s license to carry a firearm (“LTC”). The Superior Court judge’s ruling recognizes that allowing a police chief’s revocation or suspension of an LTC to prevent reinstatement after a lawful order of an arbitrator or other tribunal would effectively render the collectively-bargained protections against unjust discipline null and void. (Click here for the text of the Superior Court ruling.)

The case involves Brian Kelley, a veteran Middleton police officer who became involved in a domestic dispute in Maine on May 1 2013 that resulted in criminal charges against him. While the criminal case was pending the Middleton Police Chief exercised his discretion under G.L. c. 140, § 131 to suspend Kelley’s license to carry a firearm. Because the collective bargaining agreement between the Town of Middleton and the Middleton Police Union made the possession of an LTC a condition of employment, Kelley was unable to work and his employment was eventually terminated after the Town failed to reappoint him to his position. Subsequently, all the charges against Kelley were dismissed and he and his Union, the Middleton Police Benevolent Association, MassCOP Local 292, asked for him to be returned to his position. But the Chief and the Town refused to take Kelley back.

The Union filed a grievance on Kelley’s behalf under the CBA, which eventually reached a neutral arbitrator. MassCOP assigned Attorney Joseph Sandulli of Sandulli Grace, P.C. to represent the Union in the matter. Arbitrator Mary Jean Tufano ruled on November 20, 2014 that the Town did not have just cause to discharge Kelley. As a remedy, the arbitrator ordered the Town to reinstate Kelley with full back pay and benefits. In her decision, Arbitrator Tufano explained that while she had no authority to give Kelley back his LTC, she had the power and authority to make him whole for the Town’s violation of the CBA and that reinstatement was an essential element of the make whole remedy. She interpreted the entire CBA – including the remedial authority granted to her by the parties – to require this result. She noted that in light of the Chief’s unique discretion regarding LTCs, literal enforcement of the “LTC as condition of employment” language would mean that the Police Chief could effectively terminate the employment of any employee without just cause merely by suspending or revoking his or her LTC. She also noted that the reason given by the Police Chief for suspending the LTC – the pending criminal charges – no longer existed.

The Town of Middleton refused to obey the decision of the arbitration and instead filed a petition to vacate the arbitration award pursuant to G.L. c. 150C. MassCOP assigned Attorney John M. Becker, of Sandulli Grace, P.C. to represent the Union on the appeal. The case came before Judge Peter Lauriat in Essex Superior Court, who after briefs and oral argument, on February 28, 2017 denied the Town’s petition to vacate and instead confirmed the award. In ruling in the Union’s favor, Lauriat rejected the Town’s arguments that reinstating Officer Kelley violated public policy and would require the Town to violate the law. Instead of complying with the arbitration award, the Town on March 8, 2017 filed a motion asking the Superior Court to reconsider its decision, which is pending at this time.

Massachusetts Overhauls Public Records Law To Increase Access And Enforcement, Reduce Delays And Fees.

Significant changes to the state’s public records laws went into effect on January 1, 2017. The changes, which were passed by the Legislature in June 2016, clarify and elaborate upon the rights and obligations of the public entities in control of public records and the individuals and organizations seeking access to them. In many ways, the laws strengthen the power of citizens to gain access to public records in part by increasing the punishments for public entities that ignore public records requests or unreasonably delay in responding to them. In response to complaints that public entities have been gouging the public in assessing unreasonably high fees for producing documents, the new law sets strict limits on fees and requires the waiver of fees where the public entity did not follow the time limits or otherwise violated the law. The law moves the enforcement provisions from the original public records provision, G.L. c. 66, § 10, into a much expanded new section, G.L. c. 66, § 10A. Section 10A sets out in detail the legal standards and procedures for members of the public who have not been given the public records they requested, or only obtained the documents after long delays. Section 10A strengthens the role of the Supervisor of Public Records (who is located in the Secretary of State’s office) and the Attorney General in enforcing the law. It also permits the award of attorney’s fees and punitive damages in certain cases. The amended law also requires the holder of public records to communicate with the requester in writing to explain claims of exemption, the amount of fees or the reason for any delay in providing the documents.

The statute requires each public entity to assign a public records access officer who will keep track of all requests for records and oversee the responses to those requests as well as compile a detailed annual report for the Supervisor of Public Records. The statute states that electronic delivery of documents is preferred where feasible. It allows the public entity to withhold documents where: (1) the request is one of many by the same requester and is designed only to harass and intimidate and has no public purpose (a determination ultimately made by the Supervisor of Public Records) or (2) the requester has failed to pay the fees for prior requested documents. The statute also distinguishes between public records requests made for purposes of informing the public and those made with a commmercial or profit-making reason. While most of the amendments strengthen access to public records, there are also a few additions to the list of exempt documents, including those containing cyber security information and also the personal e-mail addresses of certain public employees.

Specific changes include the following:

  1. New exemption: records relating to cyber security
  2. New exemption: personal e-mail addresses of employees of the judicial branch and unelected employees of the Commonwealth, its agencies or its political subdivisions, or their family members.
  3. Establishes a Public Records Assistance Fund, funded by punitive damages awards and other sources, administered by the office of information technology, to provide grants to municipalities to “foster best practices for increasing access to public records and facilitating compliance” with the law.
  4. Requires the Supervisor of Records to create and distribute forms, guidelines and reference materials to aid the public in getting access to public records.
  5. Requires state agencies and muncipalities to designate a records access officer or officers, who are responsible for assisting the public in obtaining documents.
  6. Establishes that providing the requested documents by electronic means is preferred, unless the record is not available in electronic form or the requester does not have to ability to receive the documents in that form.
  7. Any public records request must reasonably describe the public record sought.
  8. The public entity must respond within 10 business days with either the documents requested or a detailed explanation for the delay or exemption; if there is no response within 10 days, then the public entity cannot charge a fee for the documents.
  9. Limited extensions of time of five additional days for the Commonwealth and 15 additional days for municipalities are permitted. For good cause, the Supervisor of Public Records may grant an additional, one-time-only 20-day extension to the Commonwealth or 30 business days for a municipality. The requester can agree to an extension of any length.
  10. The public entity must provide any non-exempt documents that are within its possession, custody or control.
  11. If a fee is permitted and the public entity requests a reasonable fee, the public entity can refuse to provide the documents until it receives the fee.
  12. In a major change from the earlier fee provisions, the Commonwealth and its agencies cannot charge a fee for the first four hours of work in responding to a request. For muncipalities with a population of 20,000 or more, the free period is two hours. Smaller municipalities may charge for all the time required to process the request. After the applicable free period, the public entity can charge up to $25 an hour for time spent on the request (more if approved by the Supervisor of Public Records after a detailed showing of need). The charge for black and white copies is limited to five cents per page.
  13. Enforcement: Whereas under the prior law, the requester could only ask the Supervisor of Public Records to determine whether the requested record was public, the statute now gives the Supervisor the power to make “a determination whether a violation [of the public records law] has occurred.”
  14. If the Supervisor of Public Records finds a violation of the law, it may notify the Attorney General, who may take any steps to ensure compliance, including filing a civil action.
  15. No matter what steps the Supervisor of Public Records or Attorney General do or do not take, the requester has the right to file a civil action to enforce the law in the Superior Court. The enforcement provision gives the court the power to issue injunctive relief and specifically incorporates the presumption that every record sought is public, which places the burden on the public entity to prove that it has complied with the law.
  16. If the requester files a civil action and subsequently prevails (and prevailing includes obtain the requested documents, even without a court order), there is a presumption in favor of an award of attorney’s fees and costs.
  17. To overcome the presumption of attorney’s fees, the agency or municipality must prove it comes within a specific exemption (i.e., the Supervisor of Public Records found there was no violation of the law; the entity reasonably relied on a published court or attorney general opinion; the intent of the request was to harass or intimidate, or the request was for commercial, not public purposes).
  18. If the Superior Court awards attorney’s fees, then it must order the public entity to waive any fees. If the Superior Court does not award attorney’s fees, it still may order the entity to waive fees.
  19. If the requester obtains a court judgment in his or her favor and has shown that the public entity did not act in good faith, then the court may assess punitive damages against the Commonwealth or municipality of between $1000 and $5000, with the money to be placed in the Public Records Assistance Fund.

Notes for employees and unions:

  1. Because of the fee provisions of the public records law, we advise our public employee union clients to request records that are relevant and necessary to their role as exclusive bargaining agents under G.L. c. 150E, § 6. The obligation to provide such information is an important aspect of a public employer’s obligation to bargain in good faith with its employee unions. If the parties have a past practice of providing documents without charge, then charging a fee for documents requested pursuant to Chapter 150E would be a unilateral change in working conditions and a basis for filing an unfair labor practice charge. A public records request would be necessary when seeking records in the custody of public entities other than the public employer with whom the union has a bargaining relationship.
  2. Personnel records are exempt from disclosure as public records, but an individual employee has a right to see his or her personnel record under G.L. c. 149, § 52C. Employee personnel records and internal investigation records may also be available to unions pursuant to G.L. c. 150E, § 6, although redaction may be required in some cases.
  3. Criminal defendants may have a constitutional right to certain portions of otherwise exempt records, such as personnel files of arresting police officers and internal affairs investigations of those officers, under Commonwealth v. Wanis, 426 Mass. 639 (1998), upon a specific showing that the records are likely to contain exculpatory information.
  4. The exemptions to the Public Records Law only determine what documents public entities are permitted to withhold from public records requesters. It arguably does not prohibit public entities from disclosing exempt documents. Other laws and statutes, including laws creating certain privileges and the law prohibiting invasion of privacy, may be invoked to prevent a public entity from disclosing a document that is not a public record within the meaning of the law.

MassCOP Supports Police Officers Serving in National Guard after Town of Rockport Refuses to Accept Arbitration Award

You may recall my August 8, 2016 blog post announcing an arbitrator’s award that granted back benefits to two full-time Rockport police officers who also serve in the National Guard. The Town had a practice of paying the officers their full salaries when they went to trainings on Cape Cod for several years when the interim police chief – on a complete misreading of the relevant statutes – concluded it was illegal to do this and began deducting their National Guard stipends from their pay. The local police union, supported by the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), fought the Town’s move; MassCOP assigned me (John M. Becker of Sandulli Grace, P.C.) to provide legal services to the officers and their local union.

The arbitrator ruled against the Town and ordered the officers to be paid as before. The decision even received some media attention – Michele McPhee discussed the case on her radio program. For a short time, it seemed as if Rockport was back on the right track.

According to the collective bargaining agreement between the Town and the Union, arbitrators awards are “final and binding”, but less than 30 days after the arbitrator’s award, the Town filed a petition in the state Superior Court asking a judge to overturn the decision because, it argued, the arbitrator had “exceeded his authority” and the award required the Town to violate the law.

Once again, MassCOP authorized Sandulli Grace to represent the local union – this time at the Superior Court. We recently filed a response to the Town’s appeal on behalf of the Rockport police union arguing that the appeal was frivolous and has no legal basis. We asked the Court to not only confirm the award but also require the Town to pay the Union’s legal fees in the frivolous appeal.

In this time of uncertainty and change, when so many misguided people here and abroad seek to solve problems through hatred and violence, we have to rely on the men and women who have chosen to serve in America’s volunteer military more than ever. The police officers in this case are full-time members of the Rockport police force and they have made significant sacrifices to serve in the National Guard. The Town of Rockport’s former practice of not deducting the National Guard stipends from their pay for attending mandatory trainings was the right thing to do. When the Town decided to cut officers’ pay for serving in the military, that was the wrong thing to do. Fortunately, the officers were part of a Union that had a collective bargaining agreement with the Town. That agreement gave them the right to challenge the Town’s change in practice before a neutral third-party arbitrator, who quickly realized that the Town’s position was wrong and no law prevented it from continuing to do the right thing.

It should have ended there. The Town should have accepted the “final and binding” ruling of the arbitrator and moved on. What possessed the Town and its labor counsel (from KP Law, formerly Kopelman & Paige, in Boston) to continue to expend time and money on depriving these hard-working officers of income? Is it simply about saving money? Because the amount they are saving by deducting the National Guard stipends is only a miniscule fraction of the Police Department budget. Is it a case of arrogance – they’re so sure they’re right that they won’t accept anyone telling them otherwise? I don’t have the answers. All I know is that these officers deserve better – their local union knows it, MassCOP knows it, and we at Sandulli Grace know it – and we will continue to fight on their behalf for as long as necessary.

BOSTON POLICE PATROLMEN’S ASSOCIATION WINS BIG IN APPEALS COURT – SIX TERMINATED POLICE OFFICERS REINSTATED

COURT AFFIRMS CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION FINDING THAT PSYCHEMEDICS’ HAIR DRUG TESTING USES BAD SCIENCE

The Massachusetts Appeals Court issued a decision on October 7, 2016 regarding the civil service appeals of 10 Boston police officers who were terminated solely because their hair tested positive for illegal drugs. All 10 officers in the appeal denied that they had used illegal drugs. In Thompson v. Civil Service Commission, No. 15-P-330 (Mass. App. Ct.), the Appeals Court affirmed the decision of the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission ordering six of the officers to be reinstated. After 18 days of hearing, the Commission ruled on February 28, 2013 that the hair testing protocol used by Psychemedics, Inc. was based on bad science and the Boston Police Department could not rely on a positive drug test alone to terminate a police officer. All 10 officers are members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA), which provided legal and financial support for these appeals. The BPPA represents the 1500 patrol officers of the Boston Police Department in collective bargaining over matters of wages, hours and working conditions.

Based on its initial finding that the hair test result alone was insufficient to terminate an officer for violating the Department’s rule against using illegal drugs, the Commission went on to consider other factors, such as the credibility of the officers’ denials that they used drugs, to determine whether the Department had just cause to terminate. Using this additional information, the Commission found that the Department had just cause to terminate four of the 10 officers. The Commission ordered the remaining six officers reinstated, but without full back pay. Representing the officers at the Commission at the request of the BPPA were attorneys Alan Shapiro and Jennifer Rubin, both partners at Sandulli Grace, P.C.

The City of Boston and Boston Police Department appealed the Commission’s decision on the six reinstatements to the Superior Court. The four terminated officers also appealed, and the six reinstated officers appealed the portion of the decision denying them full back pay. The Superior Court issued a decision on October 6, 2014 affirming the Commission’s decision in large part, but agreeing with the six reinstated officers that they were entitled to full back pay.

In the next round, the City and Department appealed to the Appeals Court on the issue of the six reinstatements, and the four terminated officers also appealed. The Appeals Court’s October 7, 2016 decision affirmed the Commission’s decision, but adopted the Superior Court’s ruling that the six reinstated officers were entitled to full back pay. Sandulli Grace attorneys Alan Shapiro and John M. Becker, at the request of the BPPA, represented the 10 officers in the appellate proceedings.

Either or both parties may file a petition for further appellate review to the Supreme Judicial Court within 14 days. Unlike the Appeals Court, which must review all the appeals filed with it, the SJC may select which cases to review. In practice, the SJC rejects approximately 9 out of every 10 applications for further appellate review it receives in civil cases.

The implications of this case are significant for any Union or Employer where hair testing, particularly hair testing by Psychemedics, is conducted. The Civil Service Commission was unequivocal in its conclusion that there are too many unanswered questions and questionable scientific assumptions in Psychemedics’ current hair testing protocol to allow an employer to fire an employee covered by just cause (either in a collective bargaining agreement or statute) on the basis of a hair test result alone.

Masscop Members In Rockport Win Back National Guard Pay Benefit – Arbitrator Rejects Town’s Argument That Payments Are Unlawful.

Arbitrator Richard Boulanger handed a significant victory to Local 154 (Rockport) of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, AFL-CIO (“Union”) on August 3, 2016 when he sustained a grievance over pay cuts by the Town of Rockport (“Town”) for officers attending National Guard training. In doing so, Arbitrator Boulanger rejected the Town’s argument that it could not legally pay officers their full pay during National Guard training.

Two Rockport police officers who served in the National Guard and had been receiving full pay while attending mandatory military training were informed in January 2015 that the Town would now be deducting their National Guard military allowances from their pay, because, the Town claimed, to do otherwise would be illegal. The Union filed a grievance over the pay cut, which proceeded to a hearing before Arbitrator Boulanger. The Massachusetts Coalition of Police provided legal support by assigning Attorney John M. Becker, of Sandulli Grace, P.C., to represent Local 154 and the two grievants.

In his decision [which may be found HERE], Arbitrator Boulanger recognized that the Town had established a past practice of paying employees who were members of the National Guard their full pay while on leave attending mandatory training, without deducting the military allowance the employees received. The practice was encompassed by the strong maintenance of benefits provision in the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the Town and the Union, which protects any job benefit that (1) existed in the past and (2) has not been contractually modified, even if it is not mentioned in the CBA.

Boulanger rejected the Town’s argument that paying officers without deducting military allowances violated the law. Boulanger reviewed four statutes relating to military pay. First, the federal military leave law, USERRA, does not contain any provisions regarding pay during National Guard training, and so was irrelevant. Of three state statutes with some relevancy, none actually applied to this case, Arbitrator Boulanger concluded. G.L. c. 149, § 52a, which had previously provided for 17 days of military training leave to members of the reserves, which could be “paid or unpaid at the Town’s discretion”, was repealed in 2014 and was no longer good law. Chapter 137 of the Acts of 2003, a local option law that the Town had adopted, allows for paying regular base salary without loss of leave or seniority, but minus any military pay or allowance, for officers in “active service.” But as Arbitrator Boulanger pointed out, the statute is inapplicable because the officers in this case were not in “active service” and National Guard training is specifically excluded from the scope of the law. The Town had not adopted G.L. c. 33, § 59, a local option law, but Arbitrator Boulanger found that statute to be the most relevant. If adopted, the law (as amended in 2014) requires municipalities to give employees in the armed forces full pay without deducting for military stipends or pay during training, for up to 34 days in a state fiscal year or 17 days in a federal fiscal year, without loss of seniority or accrued leave. Boulanger pointed out that, although the Town had not adopted G.L. c. 33, § 59, it had adopted Chapter 137 of the Acts of 2003, which provides that it “shall not limit or reduce a person’s entitlement to benefits under [G.L. c. 33, § 59].”

Ultimately, Arbitrator Boulanger concluded that, while no statute specifically authorized the Town to pay full pay to employees during National Guard training, no statute prohibited the payments either, so the past practice of the Town – which was fully consistent with the local option law, G.L. c. 33, § 59 – was lawful and enforceable. For these reasons, the Arbitrator sustained the grievance and ordered the Town of Rockport to pay the police officers full pay during military training without deducting military allowances going forward and pay the officer back pay to make them whole from the time their pay was cut in January 2015.