Attempt to obtain a "judicial reformation" of a provision in a collective bargaining agreement on the ground of "mutual mistake" fails
Attorneys James E. Beyerand Kate L. Hill of Harris Beach writing in NYMuniBlog summarized a Pennsylvania court decision, Matter of A.S. and R.S. v. Office of Dispute Resolution (Quakertown Community School District), that they characterize as “unequivocally a cautionary tale of contract law.” Their summary of the court's ruling is posted on the Internet at http://nymuniblog.com/lessons-in-diligence-reviewing-settlement-agreements-post-negotiation/
It appears that a Pennsylvania school district signed off on a settlement agreement in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) matter without reviewing a signed copy of the revised original agreement it received from the student’s parents. The parents had amended their copy of the settlement agreement before returning it to the school.
This came to light when parents submitted an invoice for reimbursement for educational services that had been denied during negotiations. The parents argued that the approval of the settlement agreement by the district was the result of the district’s negligence rather than fraud on the part of the parents.
The court agreed with the parents and explained that the district’s fatal error was failing to have its counsel review the agreement [as] the district could have easily discovered the changes if someone compared the two agreements.
Perhaps the classic New York Personnel Law decision illustrating the unintended consequence that may be visited on a party to a contract is the fall-out from a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a city and its police officers' union.
A contract provision -- referred to as the "207-c benefits" clause – in the agreement provided that permanently disabled police officers injured in the line of duty would receive the same benefits provided firefighters receiving an accidental disability retirement allowance pursuant to General Municipal Law §207-a.
In a nutshell, the disabled firefighter’s employer supplements his or her disability retirement allowance whereby the firefighter “shall continue to receive from the municipality or fire district by which he [or she] is employed, until such time as he [or she] shall have attained the mandatory service retirement age applicable to him [or her] or shall have attained the age or performed the period of service specified by applicable law for the termination of his [or her] service, the difference between the amounts received under such allowance or pension and the amount of his[or her] regular salary or wages." Such a salary supplementation is not available to permanently disabled police officer pursuant to GML §207-c.
According to the decision, the employer proposed to include language tracking the “disability” provisions of the General Municipal Law §207-c in the collective bargaining agreement and provided the union with a number of examples, including police contracts that cited GML §207-c as well as the employer's own agreement with its firefighters which cited GML §207-a. The proposed agreement with the police unit was prepared by the employer and included language providing police officers eligible for a GML §207-c benefit would be provided with the same benefit that a disabled firefighter eligible for a GML §207-a(2) salary supplement would receive.
Although the employer subsequently claimed it had discovered the "mistaken inclusion of this [§207-a] benefit" in 1966, the Appellate Division noted that “matters remained essentially dormant until February 4, 1997, when a disabled police officer applied for the supplemental [§207-a salary] payments provided under the parties' 207-c agreement.”
In response to the employer’s refusal to provide the police officer with this “contract benefit,” the union demanded that the matter be submitted to contract arbitration, whereupon the employer filed a petition seeking a judicial stay of the arbitration and for a "reformation of the 207-c agreement on the ground of mutual mistake."
The Appellate Division* ruled that the matter should submitted to arbitration.
Ultimately, the arbitrator, Howard A. Rubenstein, Esq., decided that the language used in the collective bargaining agreement controlled and thus the employer was required to provide its police officers disabled in the performance of their law enforcement duties the benefits provided firefighters mandated by General Municipal Law Section 207-a in accordance with the terms of the agreement.
* The Appellate Division's decision is summarized at http://publicpersonnellaw.blogspot.com/2010/11/claim-of-mistake-does-not-permit-party.html