Mass. Appeals Court Rules Employee Entitled To Accumulated Sick Leave

In LeMaitre vs. Mass. Turnpike Authority (November 5, 2007) [], the Appeals Court ruled that a nonunion civil engineer is entitled to sick leave buyback under the public employer’s buyback policy in place for the majority of his employment.

Plaintiff’s benefits as a nonunion employee were governed by the Authority’s Personnel Manual. During the nearly 30 years that the Plaintiff worked for the Authority, he used only 14.5 sick leave days. For the majority of his employment, the Manual stated that he could receive 50 percent reimbursement for unused sick leave upon retirement. In 1996, the Authority unilaterally reduced this sick leave incentive to 20 percent of unused sick leave. Upon retirement, the Plaintiff received 20 percent for his 28 years of accumulated sick leave.

The Appeals Court agreed with the Plaintiff that the Authority should have applied the buyback percentage in force at the time the Plaintiff accrued the leave (50 percent for days accrued prior to 1996; 20 percent for days accrued thereafter). The Appeals Court found that the terms in the Personnel Manual constituted a binding contract, once the Plaintiff accepted and complied with the terms. The Court rejected arguments that the Manual permitted the Authority to reduce or eliminate previous terms in the contract. The decision does not prohibit an employer’s retroactive changes to terms or conditions for nonunion employees. An employer may reduce benefits so long as its Manual contains conspicuous and detailed disclaimers. The Court ruled, “Moreover, had the authority intended to make no legally binding promises, it should have included in the personnel manuals ‘in a very prominent position . . . an appropriate statement that there is no promise of any kind by the employer contained in the manual; that regardless of what the manual says or provides, the employer promises nothing . . . .’”

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