Appeals court rules for WB police union in pension dispute

By Jerry Lynott - [email protected]
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A state appellate court reversed a Luzerne County judge’s ruling in a pension dispute between the city of Wilkes-Barre and retired police officers.

The decision Monday by a three-member panel of the Commonwealth Court said, contrary to the judge’s ruling, an arbitrator in the dispute did not exceed his authority when he determined “other special forms of compensation” were to be included in recalculating the benefits for the three officers: Christopher Hardy, David Morris and Tino Ninotti.

Wilkes-Barre City Administrator Ted Wampole said the next step would be to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“We are looking at all our options and will be making a decision shortly,” Wampole said Tuesday.

The case arose from a Wilkes-Barre Police Benevolent Association grievance that challenged the city’s exclusion of overtime, holiday, court and Act 120 certification pay when calculating the pension benefits of the officers who were hired after 2001. The city maintained that as a result of a 2001 arbitration award, it stopped including those types of compensation in the pension calculations of the officers.

In January 2017, arbitrator Richard C. McNeill Jr. found in favor of the police union, stating the city’s pension ordinances included the disputed forms of pay in its definitions of compensation. He also determined that although the city stopped payments due to the 2001 award, it did not amend the definition of compensation in the ordinances. His decision, among other things, ordered the city to recalculate the officers’ pension benefits to include the disputed forms compensation.

The city filed a petition in county court to vacate and stay the arbitration award. It argued McNeill exceeded his authority by requiring the city to perform an illegal act of modifying the pension plan without first doing a cost estimate as directed by state law.

County Judge Lesa Gelb ruled in favor of the city, prompting the PBA’s appeal.

Citing no deprivation of constitutional rights, the appellate court panel focused solely on the issue of if the arbitrator exceeded his authority.

The panel noted the city’s inaction on formalizing the 2001 award, and that the arbitrator found the past practice of withholding the disputed forms of compensation was still intact. “Therefore, his award did not modify the plan, as common pleas concluded; it simply sought to maintain the status quo,” the panel said.

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By Jerry Lynott

[email protected]

Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.

Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.