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March 31, 2011

Interpreting contract language

Interpreting contract language
Local 589 v Cuevas, 271 AD2d 535

Using clear and unambiguous language in a collective bargaining agreement makes it easier for a court to resolve the meaning of a Taylor Law contract provision.

In the Local 589 case, the union attempted to convince the court that PERB had misinterpreted the provisions set out in a collective bargaining agreement when it declined to accept jurisdiction over an improper practice charge filed by the Local. The Appellate Division, Second Department disagreed, affirming PERB’s determination in the matter.
The City of Newburgh and International Association of Firefighters Local 589 had negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that included a “Section 207-a Procedure” that dealt with filing application for, and the awarding of, disability benefits pursuant to Section 207-a of the General Municipal Law.

The negotiated procedure stated that [a]ny claim of violation, misapplication, or misinterpretation of the terms of the Procedure shall be subject to review only by judicial proceeding.

Claiming that requiring a disabled firefighter’s physician to fill out a newly-created form violated the Procedure, the Local filed an improper practice charge with PERB. PERB, however, declined to assume jurisdiction, holding that it was procedurally barred by the Procedure from reviewing the charge in view of the clear and unambiguous contract language used in the collective bargaining agreement.

Although a State Supreme Court annulled PERB’s determination, the Appellate Division disagreed, finding that PERB dismissal of the Local’s improper practice charge was based upon a reasonable interpretation of the provision at issue. The court noted that the scope of judicial review of a PERB determination interpreting the Civil Service Law is limited, and unless the determination is affected by an error of law or is arbitrary and capricious, it will be upheld. PERB, said the court, is presumed to have developed an expertise which requires the courts to accept its construction of that law if it is not unreasonable.

What is standard applied by the courts in such cases? The Second Department said that [a]s long as the PERB interpretation is legally permissible and does not breach constitutional rights or protections, the courts will not disturb that determination.

PERB had decided that the thrust of Local 589’s unfair practice charge was that the new documentation requirement violates the established terms of the Procedure. In view of the specific language contained in the Procedure concerning resolving disputes concerning its provisions -- shall be subject to review only by judicial proceeding -- the Appellate Division said that PERB’s determination that it could not review the improper practice charge was a reasonable and supportable interpretation of the parties’ agreement.
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