Monday, November 29, 2010
Class actions challenging administrative decisions
Holcomb v Westchester County, 255 AD2d 383
“Class action” relief is rare in the public sector because courts have traditionally viewed expanding the “plaintiff class” to all members of a certain group unnecessary due to the legal principle called stare decisis (to abide by past decisions).
Stare decisis is the judicial doctrine that once a court has laid down a principle of law applicable to a certain set of facts, that principle will be applied in future cases involving the same facts. For example, if a public employee wins the right to overtime as a result of a court’s interpretation the Civil Service Law, all similar situated public employees would have an identical right to overtime under stare decisis.*
However, there can be exceptions to this general rule about the inappropriateness of class actions by public employees. The Appellate Division’s consolidated decision in Holcomb and Hetherington cases illustrate such an exception.
Michael Holcomb and Helen E. Hetherington sued Westchester County, contending that their positions were improperly abolished by the county. They argued that because the County Board of Legislators had not amended the county’s budget to reflect the abolishment of their positions, their positions could not be abolished by “administrative action” taken by the County Executive.**
Holcomb and Hetherington also asked for “class certification” in order to include some 300 other Westchester County employees whom they claimed had also been unlawfully terminated when their positions were abolished by “administrative action.” A state Supreme Court justice granted their motion for class certification, and the county appealed.
The county argued that class certification was unnecessary under stare decisis; the final determination in a court proceeding involving a governmental operation would be controlling in future litigation involving the same issue.
The Appellate Division disagreed with county and upheld the Supreme Court’s determination. The Appellate panel said the Supreme Court did not abuse its discretion because consolidating claims into a class action was a less cumbersome way for the courts to handle these claims as the 300 potential litigants were only seeking “relative small sums of damages” and were clearly part of a “large, readily definable class.”
Further, court observed that the central issue -- whether the county legislature’s failure to amend the budget meant that positions were improperly abolished -- was appropriate for class-based consideration.
* Typically the doctrine of stare decisis is not applied in arbitrations. For example, City School District of Tonawanda v Tonawanda Education Association, 63 NY2d 846, involved a situation in which the same facts considered by two different arbitrators but involving two different employees produced different results. The school district had made layoff decisions that adversely impacted on two employees. Both individuals grieved. The grievances were considered by two different arbitrators. The first arbitration decision handed down ruled in favor of the employer while in the second case, heard by a different arbitrator and handed down after the first arbitrator had made a ruling, the employee prevailed. The school district claimed that the first arbitrator's decision should be adopted by the second arbitrator since the same facts were involved and thus the second arbitrator was bound by the first arbitrator's findings. The Court of Appeals rejected Tonawanda's theory, holding that both arbitration decisions were to stand.
N.B. Would Tonawanda have been disposed to argue that the second arbitrator was bound by the first arbitrator's award had it gone the other way? It is prudent to consider the future impact of an instant position under alternate circumstances in such situations.
** Holcomb and Hetherington appear to be arguing that the Doctrine of Legislative Equivalency, i.e., “a position created by a legislative act can only be abolished by a correlative legislative act,” controls in this action [see Matter of Torre v County of Nassau, 86 NY2d 421].
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