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August 26, 2010

Discontinuing certain disability benefits

Discontinuing certain disability benefits
Town of Cortland v PERB, NYS Supreme Court, [Not selected for publications in the Official Reports]

The Town of Cortland unilaterally adopted policies and procedures that terminated certain benefits that were being paid to police officers disabled in the line of duty if they had received such benefits for more than one year. These benefits were not expressly provided for by Section 207-c of the General Municipal Law. In support of its action, the town cited Section 71 of the Civil Service Law [Worker’s Compensation Leave], which authorizes a public employer to “terminate” an individual who has been absent for a cumulative period of at least one year.

The town also adopted procedures requiring (1) “timely notice” of any job-related injuries, (2) a time limit for appealing proposed light duty assignments and (3) a requirement that police officers claiming Section 207-c benefits charge any lost time to accumulated leave credits pending a determination of their eligibility for such benefits.

A state Supreme Court justice upheld a PERB ruling that the town’s unilateral adoption of such policies and procedures constituted a violation of Section 209-a(1)(d) of the Taylor Law. The court affirmed PERB’s order directing that these policies and procedures be rescinded. If such changes are to be implemented, they must be collectively negotiated.

The court stated that the submission of such policies and procedures to the bargaining process would not have any adverse effect upon Cortland’s ability to exercise any of the rights, which it is accorded under General Municipal Law Section 207-c.

Because the issue was settled under the Taylor Law, the court did not address the town’s innovative argument that Section 71 of the Civil Service Law can serve as statutory authority for discontinuing certain benefits for officers who had been absent because of a work connected injury for one year or longer.

Civil Service Law Section 71 [Workers’ Compensation Leave] applies to employees who have been “separated from service” because of a work-related injury or disease as defined in the Workers’ Compensation Law. If the injury did not “permanently incapacitate” the individual, Section 71 mandates that the public employer give the disabled employee a leave of absence for at least one year. Section 71 also authorizes a public employer to “terminate” an individual who has been absent for a cumulative period of at least one year.

The key issue here is what legislature meant by the term “separated from service.” While “separated” is not defined in the statute, reading Section 71 in its entirety suggests that it refers to a situation where the individual is physically unable to report to work rather having been “removed” from his or her position.

Application to Sections 207-a and 207-c: An employee who is receiving benefits under GML 207-a or 207-c may be physically unable to report to work. And some individuals who receive benefits under 207-a or 207-c also receive worker’s compensation benefits. Does this mean at least some employees on 207 leaves are “separated from service” within the meaning of Section 71? And do the provisions of Section 71 therefore apply to theses public employees receiving benefits under 207-a or 207-c?

Courts have not yet ruled on whether Section 71 is applicable in Section 207-a or 207-c situations. However, if the issue is litigated in the future, it is quite possible that courts will conclude that Section 71 simply does not apply in Section 207-a and Section 207-c situations.

The reason is that neither Section 207-a nor Section 207-c authorize the separation of an employee injured in the line of duty. Sections 207-a and 207-c appear to view disabled individuals as remaining employees who are subject to recall upon the termination of the disability or, under appropriate circumstances, assigned to perform light duty. In fact, Sections 207-a and 207-c provide for the continuation of compensation until his or her retirement, attaining the mandatory age of retirement or such other time as the individual is no longer qualified for such benefits. Arguably, the event of separation or termination in the sense referred to in Section 71 does not appear to occur in 207-a or 207-c situations.

On the other hand, the courts might well view the provisions of Section 71 to be triggered in a situation in which Section 207-a or Section 207-c salary payments are discontinued by the employer and the individual fails to return to duty, claiming that his or her disability prevents his or her doing so.

Under these facts, the individual, in effect, concedes that his or her absence is due to a workers’ compensation injury He or she has been separated from service -- i.e., cannot report for duty -- and thus the employer can deem that he or she is entitled to Section 71 leave by operation of law. Such a situation is clearly distinguishable from the employee’s status under Section 207-a or Section 207-c where he or she is physically continued on the payroll and thus has not been “separated.”

Another distinguishing element: Section 71 applies only in situations where the individual is determined not to be permanently incapacitated as a result of an occupational injury or disease. In contrast, Section 207-a and 207-c benefits are provided regardless of whether the individual’s work related injury is determined to have resulted in a temporary disability or a permanent incapacity.

Other cases: Other cases dealing with discontinuing certain benefits to individuals being paid pursuant to Section 207-a or Section 207-c include Chalachan v City of Binghamton, 55 NY2d 989, [contractual right to payment for accrued vacation credits while individual was receiving Section 207-a benefits] and PBA, Village of Walden, 30 PERB 3053, [discontinuation of a past practice that provided “contractual benefits” for vacations and other leaves to persons receiving Section 207-c benefits].

In Chalachan the Court of Appeals said that disabled firefighters were entitled to compensation and medical payments as a matter of law but “any additional benefits must be expressly provided for in the agreement....”

In Walden PERB observed that the Taylor Law agreement was silent as to such payments and found that they had been extended to disabled officers “only pursuant to a practice developed over time.” PERB ruled that Walden had not violated Section 209-a.1(d) when it unilaterally discontinuing its past practice.

PERB noted the PBA’s complaint was a “noncontract grievance,” and under the terms of the contract the “final disposition of past practice grievances” was left to the Village Manager. Accordingly, PERB concluded, “... the language in the ... [negotiated] grievance procedure vests the village with the right to continue or discontinue past practices in its discretion.”

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New York Public Personnel Law Blog Editor Harvey Randall served as Principal Attorney, New York State Department of Civil Service; Director of Personnel, SUNY Central Administration; Director of Research, Governor’s Office of Employee Relations; and Staff Judge Advocate General, New York Guard. Consistent with the Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations, the material posted to this blog is presented with the understanding that neither the publisher nor NYPPL and, or, its staff and contributors are providing legal advice to the reader and in the event legal or other expert assistance is needed, the reader is urged to seek such advice from a knowledgeable professional.
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