Arbitrator Finds That City Violated Clear, Plain Language Of Police Union Contract On Overtime

Massachusetts Arbitrator Mary Ellen Shea ruled that the City of North Adams is required to offer certain overtime shifts first to full-time police officers, under a collective bargaining agreement between the City and the North Adams Police Union, Massachusetts Coalition of Police Local 382, AFL-CIO.  In light of this interpretation of the labor contract, Arbitrator Shea found that the City violated its contractual obligations when it refused to offer full-time officers the overtime caused by single-day training and vacation absences.  The case involved the well-settled principle that clear contract language trumps a past practice, regardless of the duration of the past practice.

 MCOP Local 382’s contract entitles full-time officers to work overtime shifts.  The overtime provision states that the City, however, may offer vacancies to part-time reservists when it is reasonably determined that the full-time officer “will not be available for more than two continuous days.”  The City claimed that this language permitted it to offer overtime shifts caused by vacation and training to part-timers because “not be available” refers only to when a full-time officer is physically incapable of working.  Under the City’s interpretation, an officer on vacation or training is physically able to work, unlike an officer on sick leave.  The Arbitrator rejected the City’s interpretation as seeming “strained and does not produce a logical and consistent result.”  She concluded that the plain language required the City to offer these vacancies to full-time officers, regardless of the reasons for the vacancy.

Because the arbitrator found that the contract language was unambiguous and not susceptible to any reading offered by the City, she ruled that the City’s claims of a 30-year past practice were irrelevant and unpersuasive.  In addition to the golden rule that clear contract language trumps past practice, Arbitrator Shea found that the City failed to produce credible evidence to show that its alleged practice of offering vacation and training vacancies to reservists was clear, consistent or accepted by the Union.

After concluding that the City violated the contract, the arbitrator ordered the City to pay the Union for the amount of the overtime shift lost to the reservist.  

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