The spouse of a deceased police officer was entitled to resolve a dispute with the city over survivor pension benefits through arbitration, rather than a local agency appeal, because those benefits were specifically provided for in the police union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city, a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled.
In City of Arnold v. Wage Policy Committee of the City of Arnold Police Department, the justices reversed a Commonwealth Court ruling that Pamela Cimino, the widow of an Arnold city police officer, was not entitled to arbitrate her claims against the city after its pension board decided to cut her survivor benefits in half.
The high court said the CBA provided for “‘any dispute’” between the city and its police officers to be resolved through grievance arbitration.
“The dispute in this case was over the amount of a surviving spouse’s pension benefit, which was part of a police officer’s bargained-for pension benefits under the parties’ CBA, and therefore the arbitrator had subject matter jurisdiction to resolve the dispute,” Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy wrote for the court.
And while the Commonwealth Court had ruled against Cimino based, in part, on the reasoning that a deceased officer’s spouse is not a city employee, the justices disagreed.
“The Commonwealth Court’s analysis did not account for the fact that the survivor benefit was incorporated into the CBA,” Mundy said. “This is a significant omission because, as discussed above, the pension benefit was a specific term or condition of employment arising from Officer Cimino’s employment as a city police officer, the benefit was incorporated into the parties’ CBA, and the parties agreed to submit any disputes arising under the CBA to mandatory grievance arbitration. Further, as a police officer necessarily must be deceased for the officer’s surviving spouse or children to receive a survivor pension benefit, that survivor is the only party remaining to dispute the City’s administration of that benefit.”
Mundy was joined by Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Max Baer, David N. Wecht, Debra Todd, Christine L. Donohue and Kevin M. Dougherty.
Six of seven justices also found that Cimino was entitled to arbitrate her survivor benefits dispute under the Policemen and Firemen Collective Bargaining Act, also known as Act 111, which provides that disputes may be resolved by arbitration “‘if in any case of a dispute between a public employer and its policemen or firemen employees the collective bargaining process reaches an impasse and stalemate.’”
But Saylor, in a concurring opinion, took issue with this aspect of the ruling, saying it improperly extended Act 111′s provision for interest arbitration to cover grievance arbitration as well.
The city’s Police Pension Board reduced Cimino’s monthly survivor pension payment by 50 percent after a 2014 compliance audit by the Auditor General’s Office determined the city had been paying her twice as much as it should have been under its interpretation of a local ordinance, according to Mundy’s opinion. The police union thereafter initiated grievance arbitration, at the end of which an arbitrator sustained the union’s grievance and restored Cimino’s pension benefit to its pre-audit level.
The city appealed and a Westmoreland County trial judge upheld the decision.
But the Commonwealth Court reversed on the grounds that Cimino’s pension benefit was separate and apart from her deceased husband’s pension and therefore not arbitrable under the CBA. The intermediate appellate court also held that Cimino was required to pursue a local agency appeal under the Local Agency Law because her dispute was really with the city’s Pension Board and not the city itself.
“However, the Commonwealth Court did not consider the circumstances of this case, in which the pension benefits were incorporated into the CBA and both Act 111 and the CBA provide that any disputes may be resolved through arbitration,” Mundy said. ”The Commonwealth Court also did not acknowledge that the commonwealth and the city were involved in the police pension board’s decision to reduce the amount of Mrs. Cimino’s survivor benefit.”
Counsel for the union, Todd Eagen of Welby, Stoltenberg, Cimballa & Cook in Harrisburg, said he was pleased, first and foremost, that the ruling restored Cimino’s benefits.
He added that the ruling also had broader impact.
“We represent police unions all across Pennsylvania and the underlying issue we were very concerned about was the fact that the Commonwealth Court had determined that issues such as these were no longer arbitrable, even though contracts across the state that we have between FOPs and municipalities dictate what’s arbitrable and what’s not,” he said, adding that the Supreme Court’s ruling now brings clarity to the issue.
Counsel for the city, David Regoli of New Kensington, said he agreed “that there was sound legal reasoning on the part of the justices to hold the way they held” and emphasized that the city was forced to reduce Cimino’s pension after the audit.
“They didn’t want to take away this lady’s pension benefits but they were told that they had to,” he said. “Not one official from the city was happy about fighting the case.”