Officers' overtime appeal rejected: Court says damages formula would have given them 'windfall'
By Jennifer Kavanaugh / News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2004
MARLBOROUGH -- A group of 40-plus police officers has lost its latest legal fight over the police department's now-defunct compensation time plan, as a federal appeals court rejected their proposed remedy for the problem.
Late last month, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's decision to throw out the Police Department's "illegal" comp time program and its ruling on damages. Previously, officers who worked extra hours could take time off instead of overtime pay under certain conditions.
The appeals court also rejected the officers' attempts to get more damages in the case. The lower court had ordered the city to pay the officers for the unused comp time, about $13,535. The two parties had also agreed that the city would pay an additional 50 percent in liquidated damages, though that would have been up for grabs if the officers had won the appeal.
"The officers are very disappointed in the result of the appeals court," said attorney Jack Canzoneri, who represented the officers. He said that other communities have made comp time plans work for their officers, and that his clients wanted the same. "Unfortunately, the litigation did not achieve that goal."
City Solicitor James Agoritsas could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The city and the officers have been fighting over the compensation issue for years. The program had allowed officers to take comp time, but only if it didn't cause "undue disruption" to the department and didn't cause other officers to have overtime, among other restrictions.
The city itself eventually agreed that those conditions were illegal under federal labor law. The officers sued in U.S. District Court, seeking to keep the comp time program but have the illegal parts thrown out. Instead, the court threw out the whole plan, and the officers appealed.
The officers and courts have also been at odds over the amount of damages owed to the officers. The lower court had ordered the officers be paid only for their unused comp time, the theory being the officers had been getting paid in comp time up until the program ended.
The appeals court said that by seeking more damages money, the officers were now trying to get overtime pay for hours they had already taken as comp time.
"Adopting the plaintiffs' scheme for computing compensatory damages and liquidated damages would mean that the plaintiffs would be paid three times for the same hours: once in the form of paid time off, once as compensatory damages, and once as liquidated damages," the appeals court wrote.
The point, the appeals court said, was to ensure that the officers are "made whole, not to a windfall at the (City's) expense."
Canzoneri said that assessment is incorrect. He said they wanted a week-by-week analysis of payroll records to determine the extent of the city's incorrect handling of overtime compensation and any additional financial loss they suffered as a result. He said the officers weren't trying to get paid three times over for the same work.
"There's no triple situation," Canzoneri said.
The appeals court noted that the officers did suffer from the flawed handling of the comp time plan, and that liquidated damages were meant to correct that harm.
But because both parties had already reached an agreement about liquidated damages -- that they would amount to one-half of the $13,535 in reimbursed comp time -- the court said it was unnecessary for it to address that issue.