Massachusetts Trial Court Employees awarded $30M in back pay

(Article by Jack Dew of Lawyers Weekly)

More than 3,300 Trial Court clerical and professional workers have been awarded a total of $30 million after an arbitrator found that the court had failed to pay contractually negotiated raises.

The ruling comes as the Trial Court is coping with diminished state dollars and is facing a grueling budget process on Beacon Hill. But the news was welcomed by the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 6, which called it an “important victory” for its members.

“It is, however, sadly ironic that court workers have had to bring a case to force the judicial system … to obey the contract signed by its own chief justice,” said Robert S. Manning, the union’s general counsel, in a written statement.

Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan did not respond to repeated attempts by Lawyers Weekly to contact him.

The Trial Court and the OPEIU negotiated a three-year contract that included 3 percent raises for fiscal 2008 through 2010. While the Legislature appropriated the money to cover the raise in fiscal 2008, it did not fund subsequent years. Instead, as the financial crisis took hold, the state slashed court spending.

In an effort to avoid layoffs, Mulligan opted not to fund the pay raises. The OPEIU stayed its grievances while it hoped the Legislature would find the money to fund the contract but, in February 2009, it reactivated them. When the Trial Court denied the grievances later that month, the union sought arbitration.

The OPEIU argued that, under Boston Teachers Union v. School Committee of Boston, the Legislature approved the contract when it funded the first year’s raise, and the Trial Court was thus bound by its terms, regardless of whether the state earmarked money for the salary increases.

The Trial Court asserted that the arbitrator must confine himself to the language of the contract itself, which stated that the raises and other payments do not become effective “until the appropriations necessary to fully fund such items are enacted, as set forth in Mass. Gen. Laws c. 150E.”

Arbitrator Michael C. Ryan disagreed, calling Boston Teachers Union the “wellspring of the law regarding funding of collective bargaining agreements” under 150E.

While he agreed with the Trial Court that the “conventional task of an arbitrator is to interpret and apply collective bargaining agreements, not external laws,” he noted that there is a “well-recognized exception to this general principle when the collective bargaining agreement itself incorporates external law,” as was the case here.

“There is no doubt that the Legislature funded the first year of these Agreements with full knowledge of the incremental costs of subsequent years,” Ryan wrote, and, under Boston Teachers Union, that appropriation “effectively funded the incremental cost items of all three years of the Agreements and made them binding upon the Trial Court.”

Ryan ordered the Trial Court to “make employees whole” for wages and retirement contributions, a number the union says will total $30 million.

“In order to do business, the state must honor its contracts just as every citizen does,” said Manning, who represented the union in the arbitration. “The arbitrator in this case has simply enforced a contract that was signed and later broken.”

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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