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Labrie v. State of Rhode Island Department of Labor

Superior Court of Rhode Island

January 12, 2017

STEVEN M. LABRIE
v.
STATE OF RHODE ISLAND DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND TRAINING and TEAMSTERS LOCAL 251

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff: Joseph F. Penza, Jr., Esq.

          For Defendant: Bernard P. Healy, Esq. Marc B. Gursky, Esq.

          DECISION

          CARNES, J.

         The above-captioned matter is before the Court on an appeal of a decision of the State of Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training (DLT). The DLT found the Plaintiff/Appellant Steven M. Labrie (Mr. Labrie or Plaintiff/Appellant) eligible to receive payment for unused vacation time only for the year 2013, and not for the accumulation of time for the years 2008 through 2012, which Plaintiff/Appellant had originally sought. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         Plaintiff/Appellant is a former business agent with Teamsters Local 251 (Union or Local 251). He was employed by Local 251 from 1995 until 2013, serving first as a trustee, then as an assistant business agent, and finally from 2000 until 2013 as a business agent. He was defeated in his bid for reelection in October of 2013, and he thus separated from the Union when his term ended on December 31, 2013. He requested that he be paid for the vacation time that he did not use for the years 2008 through 2013. Plaintiff/Appellant maintains that he is entitled to be paid for vacation time from all years that he did not use all of the vacation time that he accrued, such years being 2008 through 2013. He submitted a request that he be paid for his unused vacation time, which he believed at the time to be ninety-seven days. He later calculated that he had accumulated 122.5 days of vacation time. Plaintiff/Appellant asserts that under the vacation policy enacted in 2005, when vacation time is not "paid out" the following year, it accumulates until the employee ceases to be employed by the Union, at which time the employee must be paid for all unused vacation time.

         However, the Union contends that pursuant to the Union policy in effect at the time Plaintiff/Appellant separated from Local 251, he was only entitled to be paid for unused vacation time accrued the prior year - 2013. The Union argues that the language in the 2005 amendments to the vacation time policy supports the proposition that while vacation time accumulates from year to year, vacation pay can only be distributed the year following the year in which it was earned.

         Plaintiff/Appellant filed a complaint with the DLT on January 14, 2014. See Pl.'s Compl. He initially sought payment for ninety-seven unused vacation days. He subsequently amended his complaint to seek payment for 122.5 days. See Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 9.

         A duly-noticed hearing was held pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 28-14-19. This hearing was conducted by the DLT over the course of two days: July 7 and August 25, 2014.

         Plaintiff/Appellant first called Sharon Frye, the bookkeeper for Local 251. She testified that Mr. Joseph Bairos, who served as secretary-treasurer of Local 251, asked her to calculate the number of unused vacation hours that had been accrued by several former officers who were separated from the Union in 2013, including the Plaintiff/Appellant. Tr. 17-18, July 7, 2014 (Tr. I). Plaintiff/Appellant entered into evidence a document (Complainant's Ex. 1) prepared by Ms. Frye that calculated the amount of vacation time that the aforementioned officers had taken in the years 2009 through 2013. Mr. Bairos had requested that she do so because he had learned that one or more of the recently separated officers planned to seek payment for unused time for years prior to 2013. Tr. I at 17. Matthew Taibi, the secretary-treasurer of Local 251, thereafter acknowledged receiving a letter from Plaintiff/Appellant dated May 10, 2014 requesting documentation of the amount of vacation time he had taken from 2008 through 2013. Mr. Taibi testified that because he was aware the matter was in litigation, he forwarded the request to the legal counsel of the Union. Id. at 22.

         Plaintiff/Appellant testified that he started working for Local 251 as an elected trustee in 1995. Id. at 26-27. He was appointed to the positon of assistant business agent in 1997, and he was elected to the position of business agent in October 2000. Id. at 27. Mr. Labrie testified that he received a salary during the time that he served as a business agent, and he was given a W2 for tax purposes each year. Id. at 27-28. Mr. Labrie identified a document that explained the vacation policy enacted in 2004 (Complainant's Ex. 3), and he identified a document that explained the vacation policy that was enacted in 2005 (Complainant's Ex. 4). Tr. I at 29-31. He explained that he understood the vacation policy enacted in 2005 provided "the option of getting paid out at the end of the year, or not getting paid out and carrying over until you leave office, for whenever you leave office it will be paid out." Id. at 31. He recognized that the amount of vacation time that he took in 2013 was initially overreported by fourteen hours (two days), and he explained the discrepancy by stating that the other officers used two days of vacation time in 2013 to campaign for reelection, and he did not campaign because of "a disability as far as walking around[.]" Id. at 33. He further testified that after his term as business agent ended in December 2013, he attended a meeting of Local 251 on January 26, 2014, addressing the issue of unused vacation time of Union officers. Id. at 33-34. It was determined that going forward, officers could no longer be paid for unused vacation time. Id. at 34-35.

         In his original complaint, Plaintiff/Appellant was seeking to be paid for ninety-seven hours of unused vacation time, not including the aforementioned two days that were in dispute or the unused time for 2008. Id. at 38. He further testified that he used "[j]ust under three weeks" of vacation in 2008. Id. at 38-39. Addressing the issue of officers departing from the Union, he stated that before 2004, "elected officials would have, for every [year] of service they would get a week's pay, vacation or week's pay . . . . when they left their office, when they left service, they would get one week's vacation pay for every year of service." Id. at 40-41. He confirmed that the policy for departing officers and their vacation time, as referenced above, changed in 2004 and again in 2005. Id. at 41.

         Plaintiff/Appellant testified that employees of the Union with more than twenty-five years of service "are entitled to six weeks' vacation, " and "that's been going on a long time." Id. at 46. According to Plaintiff/Appellant, whenever he took vacation time, he would receive the same paycheck that he would receive in other weeks, and he "didn't get a separate line item for vacation that changed[.]" Id. at 51. He confirmed that the documentation from the Union (Resp't's Ex. 2) indicated that he took "twelve days and fourteen hours [of vacation] in 2013, " though he is disputing the fourteen hours. Tr. I at 54. He further confirmed that during 2013, for the weeks during which he used vacation time, he received his "regular paycheck[, ] even though [he was] claiming it as a vacation day[.]" Id. at 55. Plaintiff/Appellant further testified that he was seeking to be paid for unused vacation time for the years 2009 through 2013. Id. at 59.

         According to Plaintiff/Appellant, he was not seeking payment for any vacation time for the years 2005-2006 because he "didn't carryover" any time at the end of those years. Id. He further testified that at the end of 2007, he was "paid out" for the time he did not use. Id. According to Plaintiff/Appellant, he contacted Ms. Frye regarding the discrepancy between the time the Union believed he had taken in 2013 and the time he recalls having taken, and this discrepancy was due to an apparent misunderstanding regarding whether he had used two days of vacation for campaigning in October of that year. Id. at 74-75.

         Joseph Bairos, who served as secretary-treasurer for Local 251 until December 31, 2013, also testified. Mr. Bairos explained that he and the other officers seeking election were charged fourteen hours of vacation time for campaigning, and he directed Ms. Frye to record that time for each officer. Id. at 78. He later learned that Plaintiff/Appellant was contesting that time, alleging that his disability caused him not to participate in campaigning. He agreed with Plaintiff/Appellant that he should not have been charged for the fourteen hours in dispute for 2013. Id.

         Mr. Bairos confirmed that prior to 1995, officers "leaving the employ of Local 251" would receive "a week's pay, a vacation pay for every year of service." Id. at 79. He testified that after 1995 and prior to the changes that were made in 2004, the policy was that officers could carry forward up to one-half of the vacation time they received each year. Id. at 80. Then, in 2005, the vacation policy for officers of Local 251 was again changed to the policy that the parties agree was in effect at the time that Plaintiff/Appellant separated from the Union in 2013. Mr. Bairos testified that under this policy there were no limitations on the amount of unused vacation time that could be carried over, and that an officer could carry "up to your six weeks if you didn't take any time, you could carry six weeks over." Id. In response to questioning as to whether, under this policy, officers had the option of being paid for unused vacation time at the end of the year, he responded, "You could, but no one took it, they just kept carrying it over." Id. at 81.

         Mr. Bairos further testified that following his separation from the Union on December 31, 2013, he was paid for the unused vacation time that he accrued in 2013. Id. at 84. He confirmed that he was not paid for any unused vacation time for any previous years. Id. at 86-87. When asked if he sought to be paid for unused vacation time for previous years following his separation from the Union, Mr. Bairos responded that he did not:

"[A]t that particular time because we were still in the midst of a protest and we hadn't gotten a decision from the Department of Labor, the Federal Department of Labor, once we got that decision then I made a claim for those other years. Once they ruled that we would not get a re-election that (sic) I made the claim for the previous years." Id. at 87.

         Mr. Bairos also testified that, in November 2013, he removed Ms. Linda Russolino from her position as an appointed business agent. Id. at 92-93. According to Mr. Bairos, she received, upon her separation, a check for her vacation time that she did not use in 2013, and she was not paid for any other unused vacation time. Id. at 93. The Hearing Officer inquired as to whether "she was only paid for those unused vacation days from 2013 because she didn't request the vacation, her other unused vacation days from those previous years, " to which Mr. Bairos responded in the affirmative. Id. at 101. He elaborated that the issue of whether employees are entitled to be paid for unused vacation time from prior years "had never came up until 2013." Id. He could not recall any departing employee "who received a lump sum payment of vacation pay based on their accrued time going back, 5, 6, 7 years[.]" Id. at 102. Rather, he confirmed that "when people knew they were going to leave during the calendar year . . . . they would use up their time during the year and then leave at the end[.]" Id. at 102-03. Mr. Bairos testified that he did not make a claim for his unused vacation time at the same time as Mr. Labrie because he was contesting the results of the October 2013 election "hoping that it would get overturned, " and, if it were, he "would still be an employee of the local carrying that time over." Id. at 103.

         Mr. Jerry Blinkhorn, a former officer of Local 251, next testified. First elected to be a business agent in 1977, he later served as secretary-treasurer, a position in which he served until his retirement in 1995. Id. at 104. He explained that at the time of his retirement, an officer who retired from the Union would receive "[o]ne week's pay for every year that we were there, [as] an officer." Id. at 105. According to Mr. Blinkhorn, there was, at that time, no official policy regarding the carrying of vacation time. Id. Mr. Blinkhorn testified that on two occasions, once in 1990 and once in 1992, he received Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) benefits when he was unable to work due to heart problems. He further testified that during the time he was collecting TDI benefits, he also received his regular salary from the Union. Id. at 105-06. According to Mr. Blinkhorn, when he retired from the Union, the time during which he was receiving TDI benefits was not deducted from his service time for purposes of calculating his severance pay. Id. at 106.

         Mr. James Croce next testified for the Plaintiff/Appellant. In 2005, he was a vice-president at Local 251, and at that time, had held that position for less than one year. Id. at 109. He was at the September 2005 meeting at which the officers changed the vacation policy to that which was in effect when Mr. Labrie separated from the Union in 2013. Id. Mr. Croce further testified that prior to the aforementioned meeting in 2005, the policy of the Union was that officers could carry forward unused vacation time of up to one-half of the time to which they were entitled for a particular year. Id. at 110. He confirmed that the policy was changed in 2005 to allow Union officers to carry forward all unused vacation time. Id. at 111. Mr. Croce was also present at the January 2014 meeting at which it was decided that officers of the Union would no longer be allowed to carry forward unused vacation time. Id. at 112. According to Mr. Croce, Mr. Labrie inquired as to whether the Union planned to apply the new policy retroactively, and he (Mr. Labrie) was told that the Union did not have any such plan. Id.

         On cross-examination, Mr. Croce confirmed that the position of vice-president was a part-time position, and that he became an assistant business agent (a full-time position) in April 2009, a position he held until December 31, 2013. Id. at 113-14. Following his separation from the Union, he received a payment for unused vacation time that he accrued in 2013. Id. at 114. He elaborated that on January 31, 2014, he received a payment for 116 hours of unused time from 2013. Id. at 115. In 2013, he was entitled to twenty-five vacation days per year, of which he took eight. Id. at 116. He confirmed that though he did not use all of his vacation time in either 2011 or 2012, he received payment in January 2014 only for his unused 2013 vacation time. Id. at 120. He further testified that he did not file a complaint regarding his not being paid for unused time from 2011 and 2012 because he "just didn't feel like going through the process." Id. at 121.

         The next witness called by the Plaintiff/Appellant was Mr. James Boyajian, who had served Local 251 as a business agent and as president before retiring in December 1995. Tr. at 131, August 25, 2014 (Tr. II). He testified that on two occasions "in the 70's maybe the early 80's, " he received Workers' Compensation benefits, and he also received his regular salary during that time. Id. at 135-36. Mr. Boyajian further testified that when he left the Union in December 1995, the Union "didn't have anything in writing as far as vacation." Id. at 136. However, his "understanding was that" upon separation from the Union, he "would get a week's pay and I considered vacation or a week's pay for every year I served. When I left I get 24 weeks' pay" and "a Cadillac." Id. at 136-37.

         Local 251 then called Mr. Douglas Teoli, who served as an assistant business agent from 2003 or 2004 until 2013. Id. at 141-42. According to Mr. Teoli, when he sought approval for vacation time, he would submit the request either to Mr. Bairos (principal officer of Local 251) or to Ms. Frye (bookkeeper for Local 251). Id. at 143. He identified an exhibit presented by Local 251 as a vacation request form that he submitted on November 1, 2013 for vacation time that he was requesting for December 2013. Id. at 143-44. He further testified that subsequent to his vacation request, he became disabled, and his last day of work was December 13, 2013, after which he collected TDI benefits. Id. at 145. He confirmed that some of the time during which he was collecting TDI benefits overlapped with time for which he had originally requested vacation time. Id. at 148. Mr. Teoli also testified that Mr. Bairos informed him that he could not be paid for vacation time while collecting TDI benefits, as such a practice would be considered "double dipping." Id. at 149. When asked if he was paid his regular salary during the time he was collecting TDI benefits, he responded, "I don't think I did." Id. at 150. After making inquiry to the new administration that took office at the beginning of the year, he did receive vacation pay in January 2014. Id. at 151. Mr. Teoli testified that he was present at the 2005 Union meeting at which the officers of Local 251 voted to modify the vacation pay policy to permit officers to carry forward, without limit, any unused vacation time they had not used by the end of the year. Id. at 153-54. When asked if he participated in the discussion of this change in policy, he responded, "No." Id. at 154-55.

         Ms. Frye, bookkeeper for Local 251, was the next witness called by Local 251. She testified that she had, at that time, been employed by Local 251 in that position for seventeen years-since June 1997. Id. at 160. She confirmed that she has worked as the bookkeeper under several administrations, including that of the current secretary-treasurer, Mr. Matthew Taibi. Id. She also worked as bookkeeper under the administrations of Mr. Joseph Bairos and Mr. Stuart Mundy. Id. She testified that her duties as bookkeeper include "[p]ayroll, disbursements, [and] record keeping." Id. at 161. According to Ms. Frye, she also collects vacation requests after they have been approved by a principal officer, and she would "track what everybody's got for vacation and make sure at the end of the year everybody's vacation pay is up to date or if they have extra what they are carrying over the next day [sic], if they are carrying over." Id. She testified that in the seventeen years that she had (as of the time of the hearing) worked as a bookkeeper for Local 251, she had never observed any departing employee being paid for any vacation time other than that accrued in the previous year. Id. at 161-62.

         According to Ms. Frye, Union records indicate that Mr. Teoli was collecting TDI benefits in the latter part of 2013. Id. at 162. She stated that he did not receive his regular salary during the last two weeks of 2013 because he received vacation pay. Id. Ms. Frye further testified that she is not aware of any employee receiving vacation pay and their regular salary for the same week. Id. at 164. She confirmed that prior to the aforementioned 2005 modifications, the policy allowed Union officers to be paid for unused vacation time up to a limit of one-half the officer's vacation time for the year; that is, an employee entitled to thirty days of vacation could be paid for a maximum of fifteen days of unused time. Id. at 166.

         Ms. Frye testified that during her time as bookkeeper for Local 251, she had, previous to the 2013 election in which Plaintiff/Appellant (and others) were removed from their positions, never been asked to calculate unused vacation time for any years other than the previous year. Id. at 176. She further testified that after the October 2013 election, Mr. Bairos, the departing secretary-treasurer, asked her to calculate the unused vacation time of the departing officers dating back to 2009. Id. According to Ms. Frye, "from 2005 up until the present, " she did not keep track of vacation time that officers did not use further back than the prior year. Id. at 177. She elaborated that the accumulated vacation time from prior years did not appear on any pay stubs, nor did it appear on annual statements. Id. Ms. Frye testified that when there was a payout of unused vacation time, the Union would calculate the amount to be paid out based on the salary rate of the prior year. Id. at 178. She explained that she would use the amount that the person was paid at the beginning of the calendar year "before all the taxes were maximized." Id. at 179.

         Ms. Frye addressed the payout for unused vacation time that was paid to Mr. Teoli upon his separation from the Union at the end of 2013. She testified that although he had unused vacation time from 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, he only requested that he be paid for unused vacation time from 2013. Id. at 181-82. She confirmed that he did not request that he be paid for any time prior to 2013, and that she had never processed a payment for anyone for unused vacation time that was accrued prior to the previous year. Id. at 183.

         With respect to the payment for unused vacation time that was paid to Ms. Linda Russolino following her separation from the Union in November 2013, Ms. Frye explained the Union paid Ms. Russolino for her thirteen-and-a-half days of unused vacation time accrued in 2013 following said separation. Id. at 184-85. She confirmed that Ms. Russolino did not use all of the vacation time that she accrued in the years 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Ms. Frye confirmed that the Union did not pay Ms. Russolino for any unused time for those years, nor did Ms. Russolino ask to be paid for such ...


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