A recent SJC decision illustrates the unfortunate position in which a party may find itself when it fails to file an appeal but finds itself before an appellate court nonetheless as a result of an appeal filed by the opposing party. In Town of Athol v. Professional Firefighters of Athol, Local 1751, 470 Mass. 1001 (2014), the Supreme Judicial Court considered arguments that arose when town of Athol unilaterally raised the co-payments paid by members of a firefighters’ union for medical services. After the union filed a grievance, alleging that the town’s action had violated its collective bargaining agreement, the matter proceeded to arbitration. An arbitrator determined that changes to health insurance benefits were mandatory subjects of collective bargaining and the town had violated the collective bargaining agreement by making the changes unilaterally. The arbitrator required the town to return the co-payments to their original amounts and to “make union members whole for economic losses” incurred as a result of its improper action. The town appealed the arbitrator’s award, filing a complaint in the Superior Court.
The Superior Court rejected the town’s claim that the arbitrator had exceeded its authority by ordering successor contract collective bargaining on the issue of co-payment increases. However, it found that the arbitrator’s order requiring the town to restore co-payment rates and make restitution would cause the town to violate G.L. ch. 32B §7A, which requires uniformity in contribution rates for indemnity health care plans among employees of a governmental unit. Consequently, the Superior Court vacated those parts of the arbitrator’s award.
The union appealed the Superior Court decision but the town did not appeal or cross-appeal. As a result, when the Appeals Court affirmed the Superior Court decision, it did so without considering the town’s argument that the arbitrator had exceeded its authority by directing successor contract collective bargaining.
The matter then came before the SJC, where the town again argued that the arbitrator had exceeded its authority by ordering successor contract collective bargaining. However, due to the town’s failure to appeal the Superior Court decision, the SJC declined to revisit that issue. It restricted its review to whether the arbitrator’s award exceeded its authority because it would cause the town to violate G.L. ch. 32B §7A.
The SJC ultimately concluded that, because there had been no finding at arbitration that the plans at issue were indemnity plans, there was no basis for the Superior Court’s decision that the arbitrator’s award would cause the town to violate that statute. Accordingly, it reinstated so much of the arbitration award as restored co-payments to their former amounts and required restitution to union members who had incurred economic losses as a result of the town’s improper action.