All posts by Nick Pollard

Appeals Court Upholds Power of Arbitrators to Decide Whether a Teacher has Professional Teacher Status

Today, the Appeals Court issued a decision holding that arbitrators, acting pursuant to their authority under G.L. c. 71, § 42, have the authority to determine if a dismissed teacher held professional teacher status at the time of his/her dismissal. Under G.L. c. 71, § 42, teachers who have three consecutive years of service with a school district are entitled to professional teacher status, which confers upon them certain procedural and substantive rights, including the right to challenge their dismissals before an arbitrator under a just cause standard.

The case, Plymouth Public Schools vs. Education Association of Plymouth, involved a special education teacher, who worked for the school district for five years. During those five years, the teacher took maternity leave twice, under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). At the end of her fifth year, the school district notified her of its decision not to renew her for the upcoming year. The district believed that the teacher had not obtained professional teacher status because her service was interrupted by the two periods of maternity leave. The teacher and the union took the position that she had acquired professional teacher status by virtue of her five years as an employee of the school district. Accordingly, the union petitioned the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education for arbitration. The Commissioner forwarded the petition to the American Arbitration Association for an arbitration to determine first, whether the teacher had professional teacher status, and, if she did, whether or not the district had just cause to terminate her employment.

The district filed suit in Superior Court. There, the district argued that the teacher did not have professional teacher status, that she had no right to arbitrate her dismissal, and that the question of whether or not she had professional teacher status could only be answered by the courts, rather than by an arbitrator. After the Superior Court ruled in the district’s favor, the teacher and the union appealed to the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court reversed the Superior Court’s decision and declined to decide whether or not the teacher had professional teacher status. In doing so, the Court ruled that the question of whether or not she had professional teacher status was one appropriately answered by an arbitrator, rather than the courts. As a result, the dismissal will be reviewed by an arbitrator who will have the power to determine whether the teacher had professional teacher status and, if so, whether she was dismissed for just cause. Had the court not decided in the union’s favor, teachers in a similar position would have to file suit in court to determine their professional teacher status, and then, if the court ruled in their favor, proceed to arbitration to obtain a determination on the merits of their dismissal. This decision reaffirms the Legislature’s intent to have arbitrators decide issues relating to the termination of teachers and avoids forcing teachers into costly, duplicative litigation.

The case was successfully litigated by Atty. Matthew Jones of the Legal Services division of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Here is a link to the decision.

Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Reverses District Court’s “Deflategate” Decision, Reinstates Brady’s Suspension

By a 2-1 decision, a panel of three judges of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned District Court Judge Richard Berman’s decision that overturned the NFL’s suspension of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady.

In its decision, the majority held that Judge Berman ignored the exceptional deference federal law afford decisions of labor arbitrators and acted beyond the narrow scope of review federal courts are required to adhere to. Specifically, the Court held that in suspending Brady, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell properly exercised the broad discretion given to him by Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement to suspend players for “conduct detrimental” to the NFL and/or the integrity of the game.

In its decision, the Court highlighted and rejected each of the three bases upon which Judge Berman overturned Brady’s suspension: 1) that Brady was not given proper notice that his actions could result in a four-game suspension, 2) that testimony excluded from the arbitration made the decision fundamentally unfair, and 3) that the NFL’s denial of access to the investigative notes from the NFL’s General Counsel also amounted to fundamental unfairness. In the case of each, the Court ruled that Judge Berman acted beyond his authority and did not afford Goodell’s decision the deference it was entitled to under the federal Labor Management Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act. The Court noted that under federal law, so long as the arbitrator is “even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority” the decision must be upheld, and that a judge cannot simply substitute his judgment for that of the arbitrator.

It is worth noting that the point of controversy which received a large bulk of the media attention in this case, that Goodell was able to serve as arbitrator in a dispute involving discipline he himself meted out, was a relatively minor issue to the Court. The Court that found this arrangement is extremely unusual, but noted that it was the process explicitly called for by the collective bargaining agreement. This is consistent with a long line of cases emphasizing that when parties to a collective bargaining agreement agree to a grievance process which ends in final and binding arbitration, that the decision of an arbitrator should be just that: final, binding, and free from interference by the courts. It seems that if the NFL and the NFL Players Association are to fix what many agree is a broken system of disciplinary appeals, they will have to do so at the bargaining table, rather than in a courthouse.

SJC Determines That State Pension Forfeiture Statute Is A Fine, Subject To The Eighth Amendment

The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that G.L. c. 32, § 15(4) is a fine and therefore subject to the restrictions of the Eighth Amendment of the United States’ Constitution. Section 15(4) provides for the forfeiture of a public employee’s pension and health insurance benefits if he/she is convicted of a crime relating to his/her position. The Court’s decision means that individuals convicted of minor crimes may not be subject to a complete forfeiture of their pension and retiree health insurance.

The case, Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission v. Bettencourt, involved, a lieutenant and twenty-five year veteran of the Peabody Police Department, who was convicted of twenty-one counts of unauthorized access of a computer system. Shortly after his conviction (which has since been appealed), the lieutenant applied for a superannuation retirement. However, as a result of the conviction, the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (“PERAC”) denied his application on the grounds that his retirement benefits and continuing health insurance were forfeited under G.L. c. 32, § 15(4). The issue before the Court was whether Section 15(4), as applied to this officer’s case, was an excessive fine under the Eight Amendment of the United States’ Constitution.

In determining that the forfeiture was an excessive fine, the Court held that Bettencourt had a property interest in his retirement benefits, that the forfeiture was a punishment (and hence, a fine), and that the fine as applied to him was disproportionate to the harm caused by the crimes for which he was convicted. As a result, the Court ruled that Section 15(4)’s forfeiture would not apply to Bettencourt’s pension and health insurance, allowing him to receive both in their entirety. Rather than determine what a non-excessive fine would be in this case, the Court deferred to the Legislature to determine how cases such as Bettencourt’s would be handled after forfeiture is deemed to be excessive.

This case is an important one, as the Court held for the first time that forfeiture under G.L. c. 32, § 15(4) is a fine subject to the restrictions of the Eighth Amendment. While the case did not strike down Section 15(4), unless and until the Legislature answers the Court’s call to create a remedy for individuals who have been excessively fined under Section 15(4), excessive forfeitures should result in an employee receiving the entirety of their retirement and health insurances benefits.

You can find the case details here.

Deflategate From A Labor Law Perspective: Sandulli Grace Attorney Nick Pollard In Boston Globe And On WRKO Radio

Sandulli Grace Attorney Nick Pollard was prominently quoted in the August 1st Boston Sunday Globe. Nick was interviewed for a front-page article on New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady’s appeal of the suspension imposed on him by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Brady was suspended by the Commissioner for four games after the NFL found that it was “more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” that game balls were deflated during last year’s AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Nick highlighted the important legal issues surrounding Brady’s appeal and opined that while Brady’s case is fairly strong, he still faces an uphill battle.

Continuing his media tour, Nick appeared on 680AM WRKO’s Boston.com Morning Show where he assessed Brady’s chances. He explained that while there were a number of procedural flaws in the NFL’s handling of Brady’s suspension, the award of an arbitrator interpreting a collective bargaining agreement entitled to a high degree of deference by federal judges. Nick explained how fundamental tenets of labor law such as “the law of the shop” and the requirement of notice come into play in the unique disciplinary system created by the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the Players’ Association. Links to the article and the interview can be found below. All and all, Nick did a fine job of explaining the Deflategate controversy from a legal perspective, especially for a Jets fan.