Leigh Panettiere of Sandulli Grace, P.C., Advances Pro Bono Legal Project for Veterans

As co-chair of the Boston Bar Association’s Labor and Employment Section as well as its pro bono subcommittee, Sandulli Grace Attorney Leigh Panettiere is spearheading an effort to gather experienced labor and employment lawyers in Massachusetts to volunteer their services to the men and women who serve us in the U.S. Military.  In coordination with the Volunteer Lawyers’ Project and Shelter Legal Services, Ms. Panettiere’s committee is arranging to send labor lawyers to “Yellow Ribbon Events” taking place in the next few months. Veterans and their families are invited to attend Yellow Ribbon Events and seek legal and other advice regarding the impact their military service has on their lives. The guidance of labor and employment lawyers is often sorely needed, especially post-deployment.

A large number of returning service members are police officers facing the challenges of re-integrating into the police force after active military service.  Most returning veterans do not have the financial resources to obtain the necessary legal advice on their own.  The goal of this project is to make returning to work easier for veterans and their families, as well as educating employers on the rights of returning veterans.  We encourage our union clients to get involved in this effort.

A training session will be held on Monday, November 1, 2010 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Boston Bar Association. An experienced trainer will be on hand to update the volunteer attorneys on USERRA and other labor and employment statutes that are typically implicated when a returning veteran seeks services.  Any attorney interested in attending the training, volunteering his or her services to veterans, or getting involved in coordination efforts as part of the pro bono subcommittee should contact Leigh Panettiere at lpanettiere@sandulligrace.com, or (617) 523-2500 Ext. 18.

Stay tuned for updates on this project at www.sandulligraceonline.com.

SJC’s Boston Housing Authority Decision Invalidates Contractual “Evergreen Clauses”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issued a significant decision impacting public sector collective bargaining in Massachusetts.  The court struck down the validity of contract extension provisions that appear in most of our clients’ collective bargaining agreements.  These provisions are called “evergreen clauses.”  In Boston Housing Authority v. Nat’l Conf. of Firemen and Oilers, Local 3, SJC-10569 (Oct. 22, 2010) (slip opinion), the Court held that these mutually bargained-for clauses, requiring contract provisions to remain in force until the parties reach agreement on a new contract, violate Massachusetts General Laws c. 150E § 7(a), which states “[a]ny collective bargaining agreement reached between the employer and the exclusive representative shall not exceed a term of three years.”  M.G.L. c. 150E § 7(a) (West, 2010).  Because evergreen clauses effectively extend the terms of a contract beyond the three-year limit set out by the Legislature, this legislative mandate trumps the parties’ agreements.

This decision is a significant change in the law governing public sector unions.  For thirty years, evergreen clauses have been approved by the Division of Labor Relations despite the language of section 7(a) of G.L. c. 150E.  By invalidating them today, the SJC has handed public sector labor unions a major challenge and have altered the playing field.

There is no question that today’s SJC decision makes it harder for public sector unions to represent their members in collective bargaining.  However, the decision will also cause consternation in the employer community, as everyone works to determine its exact contours.  While the SJC struck down evergreen clauses, it also noted that the clauses are firmly in the public’s interest, not just the interest of unions.  “We recognize that an evergreen clause is designed to maintain the status quo in labor relations and provide for a continuing code of conduct while parties negotiate a new bargaining agreement.”  The court further noted that evergreen clauses “foster labor peace.”  Thus, the elimination of the availability of evergreen clauses upends BOTH sides of the labor relations table.

Due to the significant departure from established precedent presented by this case, we will take the time necessary to digest its full impact and devise strategies to deal with its implications.  For our police and fire clients, the binding arbitration provisions of the Joint Labor Management Committee statute potentially provide some safe harbor from the most draconian implications of the decision.  For now, we encourage all public sector unions to work together to find solutions to this problem. We will continue to update you on developments and reflections on how to minimize the negative impact of this decision.

Superior Court Rules Police Officers Entitled To Quinn Bill Benefits

A Boston Police officer and a Wellesley police sergeant received good news this week when Superior Court judge Carol Ball ruled that the state Board of Higher Education had to certify their master’s degrees in criminal justice as eligible for benefits under the Quinn Bill educational incentive program. [The decision can be found here.] Boston Police Officer Miguelangelo Pires and Wellesley Sergeant Glen Gerrans, with the support of their unions, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, sued the Board of Higher Ed after the Board refused to allow them to earn Quinn Bill educational incentive benefits for their master’s degrees.

The case arose after the Legislature amended the Quinn Bill – which provides salary increases for police officers who earn advanced degrees in law and law enforcement – to tighten the academic requirements for the educational institutions where officers were earning their degrees. The new academic restrictions eliminated a number of schools from the list of eligible institutions, but a grandfather clause in the legislation stated that anyone enrolled in one of the previously-listed schools before January 1, 2004, could continue in that program and his or her degree would qualify for Quinn Bill benefits. Both Officer Pires and Sgt. Gerrans registered for classes in the Boston University master’s program in the fall of 2003, but they didn’t start classes until after January 1, 2004. After they completed their degrees in 2005, the Board of Higher Education refused to approve them. According to the Board, ‘enrolled’ meant ‘taking classes’, so in its view Pires and Gerrans weren’t enrolled in time to fall under the grandfather clause.

The officers approached their unions, who enlisted the help of Sandulli Grace attorneys Joseph Sandulli and Susan Horwitz, who attempted to negotiate with the Board of Higher Education to resolve this issue, which did not involve many officers. Ultimately, negotiations broke down and Sandulli Grace attorney John M. Becker filed a lawsuit on behalf of Pires and Gerrans against the Board of Higher Education. The officers argued that the plain meaning of ‘enrolled’ is to register and that the Board’s interpretation of enrolled as taking classes was inconsistent with common understanding and legal precedents. This week, a Superior Court judge agreed with the police officers and ruled that they were covered by the grandfather clause and so are entitled to Quinn Bill benefits for their master’s degrees. As the judge stated, “the meaning of ‘enrolled’ is limited to registration, and as such, reflects the intent of the Legislature to permit police officers who have registered for degrees in criminal justice programs certified by the Board prior to January 1, 2004 to benefit from their efforts toward obtaining further education.” Congratulations to Officer Pires and Sgt. Gerrans – their efforts toward obtaining further education are finally paying off.