Appeals Court: Municipal Finance Laws Do Not Permit Cities And Towns To Breach Union Contracts; City Of Lynn Ordered To Pay $300,000 To Mcop Local

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled on January 9, 2009 that the City of Lynn must pay nearly $300,000 in damages to the Lynn Police Association, Massachusetts Coalition of Police Local 302, for violating a memorandum of agreement.  In so ruling, the Appeals Court in City of Lynn v. Lynn Police Assn, MCOP Local 302, #07-P-1090, rejected the City’s claim that its failure to specifically budget for this expense allowed the City to escape liability for breaching the union contract.  The case vindicates unions that agree in good-faith to wage concessions based upon employer promises to return the favor when circumstances improve.  Sandulli Grace, PC, led by Attorney John Becker, represented MCOP in this proceeding.  Sandulli Grace partner Susan F. Horwitz assisted the Association in negotiating the original memorandum of agreement.

The case arose when the City, facing possible layoffs in 2003, asked the Association for concessions.  The Association agreed to forego approximately $300,000 in negotiated contractual benefits, but only on  condition that if the City later obtained additional state or federal grant funding, then the City would use those funds to offset the Association’s concessions.  As it happened, the police department later obtained a community policing grant of approximately $300,000.  However, the City refused to use the funds to offset the concessions.

An arbitrator agreed that the grant funds should have been paid to officers who had sacrificed their contractual benefits.  The City refused to abide by the arbitrator’s ruling, and appealed the decision to Superior Court and then, after losing at Superior Court, to the Appeals Court.

The City argued that its compliance with the arbitrator’s decision would violate the Lynn Bailout Act, Chapter 8 of the Acts of 1985.  The Lynn Bailout Act, as suggested by its title, was enacted at a time of severe fiscal crisis.  The Bailout Act sets forth a number of procedures for curbing irresponsible spending by the City and holding department heads personally liable for overspending.  According to the City’s argument, complying with the arbitrator’s award would force the City to spend more than the allotted budget for police department personnel for a particular year, and this expenditure was prohibited by the Bailout Act.

The Appeals Court rejected the City’s argument that it could avoid contractual obligations because of the Bailout Act.  First, the Bailout Act only prohibits paying liabilities that arise after the appropriated funds  have been exhausted.  The Appeals Court found that the City of Lynn’s obligation to pay police officers arose before the appropriation was exhausted, so the Bailout Act did not apply. 

Second, the Court pointed out other court cases that ordered municipalities to pay damages for breaching contracts even when they had not appropriated funds to pay the damages.  The Court concluded that the Bailout Act and similar laws (such as G.L. c. 44, § 31, which prohibits municipalities from spending in excess of appropriations) were not designed to protect cities and towns from the consequences of their unlawful actions.  Because Lynn had a contract with the Association, and breached that contract, it was obligated to pay the damages resulting from that breach, whether or not it had appropriated funds to pay for those damages.

The Court agreed with one aspect of the City’s appeal.  The City complained that the Superior Court failed to provide a declaratory judgment – a statement about the respective rights and obligations of the parties – as the City had requested.  The Appeals Court agreed.  In a case of be careful what you wish for, the Appeals Court directed the Superior Court to modify its decision to declare: the arbitrator’s award does not require the city to violate any law, and payment of that award will not violate chapter 8 of the Acts of 1985 because that statute does not prohibit payment of awards for breach of contract.”

The Appeals Court’s decision is final unless the City asks the Supreme Judicial Court to review the decision and the Supreme Judicial Court agrees to do so.  (The SJC declines to review more than 90 percent of these requests.) 

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