July 17, 2018

Employee exercising a right to obtain his or her own attorney to prosecute a grievance divests the employee organization's attorney of standing in the matter with respect to the grievant



Employee exercising a right to obtain his or her own attorney to prosecute a grievance divests the employee organization's attorney of standing in the matter with respect to the grievant
Matter of City of Syracuse (Lee), 2018 NY Slip Op 05077, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

This decision explores a number of unusual circumstances and events impacting on efforts to confirm an arbitration award, including:

1. a policy negotiated by the employer and the employee organization permitting an aggrieved member, in lieu of the employee organization, to submit certain issues to arbitration;

2. a Supreme Court's authority to, sua sponte, vacate its prior order and judgment confirming an arbitration award  and directing further arbitration; and

3. the lack of Supreme Court having "personal jurisdiction" of the grievant with respect to the employer's efforts to confirm an arbitration award in its favor.

A dispute between the City and the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association [SPBA]  concerning the General Municipal Law §207-c benefits received by Katherine Lee [Lee], a former City police officer who was injured in the line of duty. Although Lee was directed to return to work she refused and her §207-c benefits were discontinued. Lee  challenged the directive given to her pursuant to the "General Municipal Law §207-c Policy" [Policy] negotiated by the City and SPBA.

The Policy negotiated by the City and SPBA provided that an officer "shall not be required to return to work and shall continue to receive his or her prior benefits during the review process but, '[i]n the event that the Chief's determination is sustained, the Officer must reimburse the City for the value of benefits received during the pendancy [sic] of the review process.'" Lee demanded the City's action discontinuing her §207-c benefits be submitted to arbitration.*

Arbitrator Michael S. Lewandowski ruled that SPBA "failed to prove that the City acted arbitrarily [or] capriciously or that the City's determination was affected by an error of law when it determined to discontinue [Lee's] 207-c benefits." Subsequently a second arbitration was held concerning the interpretation of the   "value of benefits" subject to reimbursement to the City under the Policy, and Arbitrator Thomas N. Rinaldo ruled in the City's favor, holding that "wages are included in the 'value of benefits' for purposes of reimbursement under the Policy." In response to the City's request that Arbitrator Lewandowski to direct Lee to reimburse the City in the amount of $71,436.44, Lewandowski responded that the City was "free to seek reimbursement of wages . . . by whatever means it finds available to it." Lewandowski also declined the City's request to make a supplemental award providing for such reimbursement.

Although Supreme Court denied the City's motion to resettle the prior order and judgment, if concluded that it had inherent authority to vacate the order and judgment in the interest of justice, and it held the order and judgment in abeyance pending a decision by Lewandowski on the amount that the City is entitled to recoup from Lee.

The Appellate Division found that Supreme Court erred in denying Lee's cross motion to dismiss the City's petition as Lee had established that Supreme Court failed to acquire personal jurisdiction over her in the proceeding to confirm the arbitration award by Lewandowski because the City never properly served her.

Nor,  said the Appellate Division, did Supreme Court acquire personal jurisdiction over Lee by the unauthorized appearance of the Union's attorney "on behalf of Katherine Lee" in the course of the proceedings, explaining that "there is no evidence that Lee expressly or implicitly authorized the Union's attorney to represent her at any stage of the proceedings."

In concluding that the appearance of the Union's attorney did not confer jurisdiction over Lee, the Appellate Division acknowledges the general rule that "an employee has no individual right to enforce a contract between the employee's employer and union." 

However, noted the court, there are exceptions to that rule, and one of those exceptions applies in the circumstances herein inasmuch as "the contract provides otherwise." Specifically, the Policy explicitly provides Union members with the rights "to compel a review of the Chief's determination" and to have counsel or another representative "at any stage of the procedure."

In the words of the Appellate Division, "Lee availed herself of those rights from the outset of the arbitration and, to the extent that the Union's attorney acted on Lee's behalf during that part of the proceeding that was before arbitrator Rinaldo, that attorney was not the 'representative of . . . [Lee's] choosing' contemplated by the Policy. In any event, while the Union represented all of its members with respect to the proper interpretation of the 'value of benefits" to be reimbursed under the Policy, it was Lee alone who would be affected by, and thus entitled to litigate, the amount to be reimbursed to the City."

As to Supreme Court's "sua sponte vacating its prior order and judgment, which confirmed the arbitration award by Lewandowski, and directing further arbitration," the Appellate Division vacated "the second ordering paragraph of the order on appeal."

Although Supreme Court had authority to "vacate its own judgment for sufficient reason and in the interests of substantial justice," the Appellate Division observed that such authority "is not unlimited" and a court's "inherent power to exercise control over its judgments is not plenary, and should be resorted to only to relieve a party from judgments taken through [fraud,] mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect." Further, noted the Appellate Division, in vacating the order and judgment the Supreme Court "exceeded the narrow bounds within which courts are authorized to alter [arbitration] awards" as set out in CPLR 7511 (b) or (c) for vacating or modifying an arbitration award", which provisions apply to the arbitrator's failure to award the City a specific dollar amount for the value of benefits received by Lee, "and the court had no power to disturb the award apart from the grounds set forth in those subdivisions."

The court, Justice Nemoyer dissenting, dismissed the City's Article 75 petition seeking confirmation of the arbitration award in favor of the City "for lack of personal jurisdiction" over the grievant.

* Under the Policy, "[a]ny Officer . . . shall have a right to a representative of his or her choosing, and at his or her own cost, at any stage of this procedure, and shall be given a reasonable opportunity to . . . obtain a representative and/or counsel." Lee exercised that right and retained an attorney to represent her in the arbitration conducted before arbitrator.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

http://www.nycourts.gov/reporter/3dseries/2018/2018_05077.htm



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