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LCW Obtains Dismissal Of POA’s Breach Of Contract Claim Related To Salary Surveys

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Jun 08, 2021

LCW Partner Jennifer Rosner and Associate Viddell Lee Heard obtained a defense judgment for a city against a police officer’s association’s claims for 1) breach of the memorandum of understanding (MOU); and 2) declaratory relief.

The MOU, dated 2015 to 2020, provided for annual salary increases for association members based on a salary survey. The MOU also stated that the salary surveys would be conducted in accordance with the provisions of the City Charter and “consistent with the interpretation and methodology [the city] currently utilized by the City.”

The city’s municipal code specified the following methodology for salary surveys: if an item of compensation from a comparator city’s memorandum of understanding appeared on a surveyed city’s salary plan (consisting of ranges and steps), then the compensation was included in the survey. Any other item of compensation, such as fringe benefits or education pay, was not included in the survey. In addition, a 2004 City Attorney Opinion letter stated that Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certificate pay should only be included in the salary survey if it was part of a surveyed city’s salary plan.

In 2015 and 2016, an association member who prepared the materials for the parties’ annual salary survey included POST certificate pay from a few comparator cities even though that pay was not in a salary plan.  For both years, the city’s human resources director approved the salary surveys without realizing this mistake.  In 2017, the human resources director learned of these errors and ensured the mistake was not repeated in the salary survey for that year or for future salary surveys.

The association sued, alleging that the city breached the MOU by failing to include POST certificate pay for all comparator cities during the 2017 salary survey.  The association argued that 1) the City Charter does not limit salary and should be interpreted to include all forms of compensation including POST pay, and 2) the parties modified that methodology when they included the otherwise excluded POST certificate pay in the 2015 and 2016 salary surveys. During the bench trial, however, the association presented the member who prepared the salary survey materials in 2015 and 2016.  She testified that, while she did not participate in negotiations for the MOU, she understood that the MOU required the parties to use the same methodology that the parties had always been using for conducting salary surveys.   Thus, she admitted that she had deviated from the parties’ past practice by including POST certificate pay in the salary survey for the years 2015 and 2016 when it was not part of the comparator agency’s salary plan.

After the association presented its case at trial, the city moved for judgment on the grounds that the association failed to present evidence supporting a breach of the MOU.  The court agreed, finding that there was no evidence to support that the language in the City Charter section required the city to incorporate POST pay into the salary survey or that this was the intent of the parties during negotiations for the MOU.  The Court also found that the association had not presented sufficient evidence to support that the parties intended to modify the existing methodology, particularly since the deviation that occurred in 2015 and 2016 was rectified during the 2017 salary survey after the human resources director learned of the error.

The Court also held that the association’s request for declaratory relief was moot because the MOU had expired in 2020.  Thus, there was no need for the Court to take any action.

Note:

A party may move for judgment at trial after the opposing party with the burden of proof has completed presenting its evidence.  The party can make this motion even before it puts on its case.  Therefore, the motion for judgment is a powerful tool that can reduce costs by getting a lawsuit dismissed before the completion of the trial.

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