Union Memo Argues Case Law Backs Panel’s Award

P-J file photo

The weight of 40 years of case law — including the latest addition to that case law in January — is all the state Supreme Court in Mayville needs to uphold 2 percent pay raises for Jamestown police officers.

That is the crux of the legal argument articulated in court filings recently in the City of Jamestown v. Kendall Club PBA submitted to the court by Kendall Club attorney Charles DeAngelo of Fessenden, Laumer and DeAngelo.

In early February, DeAngelo filed a memorandum of law responding to the city of Jamestown’s challenge to the binding arbitration that awarded Kendall Club members 2 percent salary increases for 2016 and 2017.

While the city argues that the decision is arbitrary and capricious, against public policy and violates unambiguous statutory mandates, DeAngelo writes that case law limiting a court’s interference in arbitration cases is well defined.

DeAngelo cites 25 cases that speak to either an outside court’s limited role in arbitration cases or that have attempted to define what constitutes arbitrary and capricious behavior by an arbitration panel. Rather than a review that looks at the evidence and arrives at its own decision, DeAngelo argues that the state Supreme Court hearing the case between Jamestown and its police officers is bound to review if the decision by the arbitration panel is supported by evidence or other basis and reason. Appeals courts have held since 1977 that arbitration panels have engaged in consideration of the statutory consideration rather than attempt to impose the outside courts’ standards on the arbitration case.

The state’s statute mandating the arbitration panel give a 70 percent weighting to a municipality’s ability to pay an arbitration award has also been the subject of court decisions, including a 2008 decision focusing on Buffalo’s firefighters. The Fourth Department Appellate Division, in that case, reiterated the heavy burden on a municipality to prove the arbitrators’ award is totally irrational or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator’s power.

“Absent definitive proof that the arbitration award is ‘totally irrational’ with no ‘plausible basis’ for the decision, the courts have not invaded the province of arbitration panels,” DeAngelo wrote.

The ability to pay standard has also been the subject of litigation over the years, both before and after the state’s mid-2000s statute giving ability to pay 70 percent of the arbitration panel’s consideration. The most recent such case was decided in 2019 and dealt with the arbitration between the Plattsburgh Permanent Fireman’s Association and the city of Plattsburgh. The decision was issued Jan. 17, 2019, and DeAngelo wrote that the Third Department’s decision in the case rejected many of the issues being argued by the city of Jamestown.

The appeals court ruled that the law requires only that an arbitration panel accord a 70 percent weight to a financially eligible municipality’s ability to pay while relying on past case law in deciding to substitute the court’s judgement and replace the arbitration panel’s ruling.

DeAngelo takes the Third Department’s reticence a step further and states the state’s 70 percent weighting law isn’t specific enough to overturn the Jamestown arbitration panel’s decision.

“Contrary to the implied argument of the petitioner herein, the legislative history of the bill does not specify how the arbitration panel is to apply the 70 percent weighted criteria of the fiscally eligible employer’s ability to pay and what, if any, findings must be explained and/or documented by the arbitration panel in issuing the award to support the determination. The legislative history reflects no such direction to arbitration panels,” DeAngelo wrote. “Clearly, the statutory authority and evaluation of the evidence presented to the panel vests the responsibility with the panel and not the courts, subject to the ‘rational’ and ‘plausible basis’ standards absent evidence that the panel acted arbitrarily or capriciously.”

Lastly, DeAngelo argues that the Jamestown arbitration panel’s decision gave careful consideration to Jamestown’s ability to pay and was well aware of the city’s financial issues. DeAngelo notes the panel rejected the Kendall Club’s proposal for enhanced health benefits, increases in longevity payments for employees with eight and 12 years service, an increase in the shift differential, an increase in supervisor’s pay and a positive performance of duty stipend.

“This panel was presented with voluminous detailed exhibits with amplification of the city’s arguments and detailed presentations by its witnesses in opposition to the demands made by the Kendall Club PBA,” DeAngelo wrote. “The arbitration panel herein was selective in giving the Kendall Club a very limited wage increase (2 percent) and rejecting numerous other economic benefit demands.”

DeAngelo and Jason Donato, Kendall Club PBA president, also filed a cross-motion for relief asking the court to confirm the arbitration award. One of the things Donato and DeAngelo mention that has been lost in the dollars and cents discussion is the nature of policing in Jamestown.

“The Kendall Club’s analysis included an extensive review of crime rates in comparable communities which reflected that out of 10 FBI crime statistical categories, Jamestown was rated (based on 17 proposed comparable cities) in the top 88 percent (worse) in crime rates in the comparable communities including violent crime, murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle thefts and arson,” Donato and DeAngelo wrote. “The city offered little defense to the union’s contention that the citizens of the city and Jamestown police officers face a socially and economically challenged community where the incidents of drug trafficking and violent crimes, with the ever presence of guns, has made public safety a number one challenge in the community. The city offered no contrary analysis in their dissenting opinion.”

COMMENTS