State High Court to Decide If Cities and Towns Must Pay Interest When They Wrongfully Deny Section 111F benefits.
The Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to review a victory for public safety officers injured in the line of duty. Earlier this year, the state Appeals Court ruled that a public employer must pay pre- and post-judgment interest if a state court overturns the municipality’s refusal to pay injured-on-duty benefits to a police officer or firefighter. The case is Todino vs. Town of Wellfleet 05-P-613 (April 19, 2006).
A public safety officer may go to court to challenge a municipality’s decision to deny §111F benefits. IOD benefits are commonly known as §111F benefits in reference to General Laws Chapter 41, §111F. Under the Appeals Court decision, a municipality is on the hook for prejudgment and postjudgement interest if a court finds that the denial of 111F benefits is determined was wrong.
In the Todino case, a special police officer was removed from §111F and fired in December 1998. In November 2002, a court found that these actions were unlawful and entered a judgment entitling her to reinstatement and retroactive §111F benefits. The Town of Wellfleet appealed this decision – and lost in March 2005. Wellfleet finally paid the officer for lost wages ($172,000) in April 2005 without interest.
The officer then sought interest payments on the above payout. Her prejudgment interest – based on the time between the initial denial of benefits and the date of the trial court’s decision – totaled about $69,000. Meanwhile, postjudgment interest – based on the time between the trial court’s decision and the municipality’s actual payment of §111F benefits – reached nearly $61,000. Without the addition of pre-and post-judgment interest, the Court stated, “the ultimate payments to the employee would be incomplete as well as untimely and the over-all statutory scheme would be defeated.”
This decision, if upheld, presents a resounding victory for public safety officers injured in the line of duty. The possibility of interest payments should make a town think twice before denying §111F benefits. In addition, the threat of interest payments also should strengthen the bargaining power of the Union and the injured officer to resolve the case favorably short of litigation.
We can’t celebrate just yet. The SJC’s decision to review the case means that the decision could be reversed or affirmed. The case is expected to be argued in November with a decision to issue like to issue sometime in 2007.
A word of caution: the applicability of this decision to §111F arbitration cases is not automatic. Persons wrongfully denied IOD benefits may be able to seek relief from an arbitrator, instead of a judge. Many collective bargaining agreements permit §111F claims to be raised in the grievance/arbitration process. (Even if a CBA contains no express provision on IOD or §111F, unions still could challenge a denial of benefits by citing other provisions, including wages, paychecks, sick leave, etc.) Arbitration generally is less costly and time-consuming.
However, interest is not a traditional remedy in arbitration cases. As such, an arbitrator may be reluctant to deviate from the norm and order interest in a §111F case. At the same time, some arbitrators interpret a CBA more generously than §111F. For interest, the statute does not require paid leave benefits to accrue while an officer on IOD. Many arbitrators, depending on contract language or past practice, order employers to pay these benefits.
If you feel you have been wrongfully denied §111F benefits, you should consult with your union counsel in advance about your options.