Appeals Court Permits Public Employers To Terminate At-Will Public Employees For Exercising Right To Health Insurance; Decision Reinforces Benefits Of Union Membership

In Parker v. Town of North Brookfield, No. 06-P-167 (February 15, 2007), the Massachusetts Court of Appeals upheld a public employer’s termination of an at-will employee who exercised her statutory right to health care benefits. The town terminated the employee purely so it could avoid cost of meeting its health insurance obligations. By allowing public employers to terminate employees who demand health insurance, the Court reinforced incentives and benefits of unions, whose members generally receive health insurance and protections against retaliatory treatment.

The case involved an animal control officer who was subject to annual appointment. For many years, the employee was not enrolled in the town’s insurance program, as she received benefits from her other (public) employer. Following the transfer, she requested enrollment in the town’s insurance plan, to which she was entitled under Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 32B. The town responded to the employee’s request for basic health care benefits by terminating her, eliminating her position, and transferring her animal control responsibilities to the police department. The town reassigned the animal control duties to other members of the police department. There was no dispute that the town acted “purely on the basis of avoiding the cost of providing her with insurance.”

In one of the decision’s few victories for employees, the Appeals Court first held that an aggrieved public employee could sue a municipality in court for its violation of state health care laws, even though the statute does not specifically provide a mechanism for such lawsuits. Nevertheless, the court still upheld the town’s actions.

The Appeals Court acknowledged that the town’s actions would violate the federal ERISA law, 29 USC §§ 1001 et seq., if the law applied (ERISA generally does not apply to public employers). The court then declined to adopt the federal rule into chapter 32B, even though the employer’s actions arguably violate the spirit and purpose of chapter 32B. In other words, the court held that employees may sue to enforce the terms of state health care laws, except when they are fired for seeking to enforce the terms of health care laws.

The court later held that the town’s actions did not violate public policy, because, it reasoned, the town’s effort to control its budget was consistent with decision making of a private sector employer. It wrote, “[W]e note that in the context of the private sector, financial considerations can provide good cause to terminate an at-will employee.” The court arrived at this conclusion despite its previous acknowledgment that a private sector employer could not have acted in a manner that the town did here. The court further held that it did not matter if the town acted in bad faith.

The court’s decision may only compound the health care crisis by intimidating uninsured employees from asserting their rights and by rewarding employers who seek to avoid their obligations. By taking such an unsympathetic view of uninsured public employees, the court reinforced the benefits of union membership. Employees who are represented by a union generally are not “at-will.” They only cannot be fired if the employer has “just cause.” An employer does not have “just cause” if it fires an employee in retaliation for asserting statutory rights, and where the employer merely transfers the job responsibilities to other employees in the town. Further, a union could sue the town in an instance as here for unlawful retaliation and for unilaterally transferring or subcontracting the union work.

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Sandulli Grace P.C., in cooperation with the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, AFL-CIO, will present an educational seminar, HOW TO RUN A LOCAL POLICE UNION (WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW COULD HURT) on Monday, April 2, 2007, at the Doubletree Hotel, Westborough.

This is the fifth year we have conducted a seminar for Massachusetts police officers. Subjects covered have included the Fair Labor Standards Act, creative strategies for bargaining, the grievance and arbitration process, and police disciplinary issues. From the feedback we received and the growing attendance, these programs conveyed a breadth of useful information.

This year we will present an overview of what is needed to successfully run a local police union.
How To:
Prepare for successful contract negotiations
Handle union funds and raise additional funds within the law
Respond when an officer requests Union support for a grievance
Create a Local Union Constitution and conduct a union meeting
Deal with a difficult employer
Represent members in trouble
Deal with potential criminal charges against your members
PLUS, update on new, proposed latest health insurance legislation!!

From the nuts and bolts (constitutions and bylaws), to the essential (handling dues money, representing members in trouble, preparing for contract bargaining), we will give you the tools you need to best represent your members. Whether you are a new or experienced union leader, or a member someday aspiring to union office, you will find this seminar useful and challenging.

The nine experienced union labor attorneys at Sandulli Grace, with over 200 years of cumulative experience, preeminent police defense Attorney Thomas Drechsler, along with several experts in selected topics, will instruct and answer your questions. We hope to see you and other officers from your local there.

Your $35 registration fee includes the seminar, continental breakfast, coffee break, lunch and a post seminar reception.

For more information or call 617-523-2500.