Monday, May 14, 2012

Employer’s reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums is a "term and condition of employment" subject to mandatory negotiation

Employer’s reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums is a "term and condition of employment" subject to mandatory negotiation
Chenango Forks Cent. School Dist. v New York State Pub. Empl. Relations Bd., 2012 NY Slip Op 03700, Appellate Division, Third Department

The Chenango Forks Central School District distributed a memorandum to its faculty and staff represented by the Chenango Forks Teachers Association announcing that it would discontinue its longstanding practice of reimbursing retirees' Medicare Part B premiums.

While the relevant collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the parties did not explicitly obligate the school district to make such reimbursements, it had done so since at least 1980 when such reimbursement was required by the Empire Plan, the health insurance plan provided to employees up until 1990.

In 1990 the parties entered into a new CBA, and health insurance coverage was changed to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which did not require the reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums. Chenango Forks, however, continued to make such reimbursements.

The Association filed a grievance alleging a violation of the CBA.* At the same time, the Association filed an improper practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) alleging that Chenango Forks had violated Civil Service Law §209-a(1)(d) when it failed to negotiate the discontinuance of reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums.**

PERB’s Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) found that school district's practice of reimbursement had "giv[en] rise to a reasonable expectation by current employees that they proceed under a promise of post-retirement [reimbursement]" and, thus, Chenango Forks’ unilateral decision to discontinue reimbursement violated its collective bargaining obligations under Civil Service Law §209-a(1)(d).

Ultimately PERB affirmed the ALJ's  conclusions regarding the school district's obligations under Civil Service Law §209-a(1)(d). The district filed an Article 78 challenging PERB's determination.

Rejecting the school district’s argument that reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums is not a "term and condition of employment" subject to mandatory negotiation, the Appellate Division said that health benefits for current employees are a form of compensation, and thus a term of employment that is a mandatory subject of negotiation.

Although Civil Service Law §201(4) prohibits negotiation of certain retirement benefits, the Appellate Division pointed out that the continuation of health insurance payments to current employees after their retirement is not a retirement benefit within the meaning of that provision, citing Matter of Incorporated Vil. of Lynbrook v New York State Pub. Empl. Relations Bd., 48 NY2d 398, 404 [1979]; Matter of Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES [JLHHO BOCES Professional Assn.], 219 AD2d 801, 802 [1995], lv denied 87 NY2d 812 [1996].

The court explained that such health insurance benefits, although paid after retirement, constitute a form of compensation earned by the employee while employed. Thus, noted the Appellate Division, as the Court of Appeals has held, and PERB rationally concluded, here that Chenango Forks "ha[d] a duty to negotiate with the bargaining representative of current employees regarding any change in a past practice affecting their own retirement health benefits," citing Matter of Aeneas McDonald Police Benevolent Assn. v City of Geneva, 92 NY2d at 332 [emphasis omitted]; see Matter of Incorporated Vil. of Lynbrook v New York State Pub. Empl. Relations Bd., 48 NY2d at 404; Matter of Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida BOCES [JLHHO BOCES Professional Assn.], 219 AD2d at 802; Matter of Corinth Cent. School Dist. [Corinth Teachers Assn.], 77 AD2d 366, 367 [1980], lv denied 53 NY2d 602 [1981].

As to the question of whether a binding past practice was established, the Appellate Division said that the issue before PERB was whether, irrespective of any contractual obligation in the parties' CBA, a past practice of reimbursing retirees for Medicare Part B premiums was established such that Chenango Forks was barred from discontinuing that practice without prior negotiation with the Association.***

As to the merits of its past practice determination, the Appellate Division found that PERB had determined that there was a reasonable expectation by unit employees that they would receive reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums upon their retirement, which finding was “supported by the stipulated facts that [the school district had] reimbursed Medicare Part B premiums to active employees and retirees since at least 1980 and that, despite the fact that the health insurance coverage provided under the CBAs subsequent to 1990 did not require such reimbursement, [the school district had] continued to do so until July 2003.”

Significantly, the Appellate Division said that it could not conclude that, by entering into a new CBA for the 2004-2007 period, which is silent regarding the reimbursement of Medicare Part B premiums, the Association waived its right to negotiate a change in [school district’s] practice of providing Medicare Part B reimbursement, explaining that. "A waiver is the intentional relinquishment of a known right with both knowledge of its existence and an intention to relinquish it . . . Such a waiver must be clear, unmistakable and without ambiguity."

As a final point, the Appellate Division stated that the “reimbursing active employees for Medicare Part B premiums does not constitute an improper gift of public funds (see NY Const, art VIII, § 1), as the reimbursements represent compensation earned by employees while employed and in consideration for a benefit furnished to [the school district].”

* A group of school district retirees also commenced a CPLR Article 78 proceeding to annul the district's decision to discontinue Medicare Part B premium reimbursements (Matter of Bryant v Board of Educ., Chenango Forks Cent. School Dist., 21 AD3d 1134 [2005]). This action wast remitted to Supreme Court for further record development to determine whether there had been a "corresponding diminution of benefits or contributions" effected by petitioner from active employees (Chapter 48 of the Laws of 2003; see Matter of Bryant v Board of Educ., Chenango Forks Cent. School Dist., 21 AD3d at 1137-1138). The instant proceeding before the Appellate Division, in contrast, involved current, active employees of school district.

** PERB conditionally dismissed the charge subject to a motion to reopen the matter after the conclusion of the grievance procedure. When the grievance proceeded to arbitration, an arbitrator determined that petitioner was under no contractual obligation to continue the payments.

*** In contrast, the specific issue before the arbitrator was whether school district was under a contractual obligation to make Medicare Part B reimbursement payments to retirees.

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