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Wage suit ruling could cost Lawrence over $1m

A retired Lawrence police captain is set to return to court this month after a legal victory that could affect the city’s teetering finances as well as public employment cases across the state.

The lawsuit filed by Ronald Plourde, 58, is one of at least four wage suits that together could cost the city over $1 million, city officials said. The latest Appeals Court decision, which weighs worker rights against emergency spending controls, could reverberate in cash-strapped cities across Massachusetts.

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City Solicitor Charles Boddy said Lawrence faces “a constellation” of cases brought by former city employees who left during the tenure of former mayor William Lantigua and later sued the city for benefits they argue were earned but never paid.

The others include Thomas Schiavone, fired as acting economic development director in 2010; Myles Burke, fired as inspectional services commissioner in 2010; and Victor Morales, another police officer who retired in 2011, according to court records and city officials.

Schiavone and Burke were appointed by former mayor Michael Sullivan, who said last week that the cases reflect a pattern of retribution by Lantigua, who succeeded Sullivan in 2010 before losing a close reelection race last fall.

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“If the previous administration didn’t like you, they would punish you [by] holding up people’s retirement, people’s accruals,” Sullivan said.

In an interview Monday, Lantigua said he played no role in the decisions not to pay the officers. Their cases “had nothing to do with not liking anybody,” Lantigua said. “Not at all.”

Lantigua declined to discuss Schiavone and Burke, citing pending litigation.

According to court documents, a police administrative employee recalled discussing Plourde’s situation with Lantigua’s chief of staff, Leonard Degnan.

Degnan, who was sentenced last month to 18 months in jail for bribery and other charges, could not be reached for comment.

Although the three other former city employees named Lantigua as a defendant or otherwise cited him in their suits, Plourde, who now lives in Seabrook, N.H., did not, according to court documents. He said he did not blame Lantigua for his dispute.

Plourde and Morales had each worked hundreds of hours of overtime that they elected to bank for future time off in lieu of immediate pay, according to payroll records cited in court documents.

Each officer was subsequently injured in the line of duty — Morales in a 2002 fall, and Plourde in a 2006 vehicle accident — and retired as permanently disabled without having used the compensatory time, according to court documents. When the city said that the time was forfeited, they sued.

“In the state of Massachusetts, when you work you get paid for it,” said Plourde’s lawyer, Corinne Hood Greene,a partner at Greene & Hafer in Charlestown.

Citing a 1990 emergency budget control law known as the Lawrence Act, the city argued that a “use it or lose it” policy forbade municipal employees from banking personal days as the officers had. The city also argued that it was shielded by the principle of sovereign immunity.

Essex Superior Court Judge Robert Cornetta agreed, dismissing Plourde’s suit on summary judgment in February. The same judge had dismissed Burke’s suit on similar grounds in 2012 and was set to hear Morales’s case as well.

But on April 9, a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court — after reviewing arguments brought by Plourde’s attorney and the city of Lawrence — overturned the February decision in a strongly worded ruling that called Cornetta’s reasoning “a clear error of law.”

Now, the city may be on the hook not only for unpaid time but also triple damages, the plaintiffs’ legal costs, and 12 percent annual interest, mandated by a 2008 revision to the state Wage Act.

Plourde is seeking back pay for 261.5 hours, which with damages and interest could exceed $66,000 before adding lawyers’ fees and court costs.

“I earned the hours,” Plourde said. “I went out injured. I couldn’t take the time. They should have paid me.”

Morales is seeking back pay for 472 hours, which with damages and interest could exceed $82,000 before legal expenses.

The city’s position “shocks the conscience and any notion of fair play,” said Morales’s lawyer, Murat Erkan, chief partner atof Erkan & Associates in Andover.

Erkan, a former prosecutor, said he had worked with Morales on major cases and described his client as “diligent, ethical, and a tireless detective.”

Schiavone is seeking more than $222,000 for unused time, plus legal expenses. He could not be reached for comment.

Burke had sought $175,000, but his recourse is unclear after he did not appeal Cornetta’s 2012 decision.

“The total exposure of the city could be in excess of $1 million,” said Boddy, who has worked for the city since 2003.

The deadline for the city to file a notice of appeal is May 9. Mayor Daniel Rivera, who took office in January, said the city may have no choice but to take the case to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“We may need to continue to fight these things,” Rivera said, “because we don’t have money to pay triple damages.”

In overturning Cornetta’s decision, the Appeals Court ruled that Lawrence’s employer obligations under the state Wage Act trumped the emergency budget control law.

Lawyers on both sides of the case, as well as outside observers, said that decision could affect cities now operating under similar emergency laws, such as Lynn, and those subject to them in the past, such as Springfield and Chelsea.

“Several cities that have these emergency control acts have tried to argue that they are not subject to the same rules everybody else has to play by,” said Harold Lichten, a partner at the Boston firm Lichten & Liss-Riordan who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Plourde’s case on behalf of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, a labor union. “The firefighters thought this argument was ridiculous, and the appeals court agreed.”

The decision also underscores the strength of the state’s Wage Act in the state’s top courts, observers said.

“Most decisions that have gone to the Appeals Court or SJC, I’ve found, tend to give the Wage Act deference,” said Stephen Melnick, who practices employment law at Littler Mendelson in Boston and was not involved in the Lawrence cases. “They do what they can to give it a broad interpretation.”

Since Rivera took office in January, the city has compensated all departing employees for unused time, the mayor said.

“We did not deny anyone on the way out any of their time,” Rivera said. “We’ve made sure that it’s all legit — don’t get me wrong — but we haven’t denied people their time.”

Alan Leo can be reached atalanleo@gmail.com.
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