Administrative Leave Can Last Too Long

While on patrol on February 17, 2011, Officer Paul Tracey of the City of Waltham, Massachusetts was asked by a friend to help him obtain information from tenants he was attempting to remove from an apartment his family owned in Waltham. After accompanying his friend to the apartment and obtaining information from Edgar Gonzalez and his younger brother, Tracey left the apartment. Gonzalez immediately began complaining to the police that he had been threatened with eviction and deportation if he did not leave, and requested an investigation.

A Police Department internal affairs investigation began, and on April 20, 2011, Tracey was placed on paid administrative leave. More than six months later, the City suspended Tracey for 15 days.

Tracey’s labor organization, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, challenged in arbitration both the suspension and Tracey’s placement on administrative leave. An arbitrator concluded the City violated the collective bargaining agreement by placing Tracey on administrative leave and also ruled that the City did not have just cause to issue the disciplinary suspension, and ordered that it be converted to a written reprimand.

The City challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in the Massachusetts Court of Appeals, arguing that the arbitration decision was beyond the Arbitrator’s authority. The Court disagreed, and upheld the Arbitrator’s award.

The Court began with the observation that “we are strictly bound by the Arbitrator’s factual findings and conclusions of law, even if they are in error.” Those facts, the Court observed, included the Arbitrator’s finding that “the Gonzalez complaints triggered much investigation which ultimately unveiled only one technical violation: Tracey’s failure to call in to the dispatch center his unauthorized visit to the friend’s apartment or otherwise make a record of it. For reasons that were not revealed at arbitration, the City’s investigation was unusually and unnecessarily long. By September 1, all investigations were complete and there was no further apparent reason to maintain Tracey on leave until January 30, 2012. The Arbitrator concluded that the City violated the CBA by arbitrarily and capriciously maintaining Tracey on administrative leave, an action that was also effectively discipline without just cause.”

The Court concluded that “the Arbitrator did not disturb the decision of the Chief to place Tracey on administrative leave or to order him to end the leave, or otherwise interfere with his duties at any time during the internal affairs investigation. The Arbitrator also noted that the Union established that no one was previously disciplined for this technical violation of essentially clerical functions of the position police officer. He concluded that ‘considering that this is the City’s first known use of discipline to formally enforce this policy, it is appropriate to start at the first step of progressive discipline with a written reprimand. A lost time discipline such as the suspension that was imposed is excessive and without just cause for the first discipline for such a technical violation.’”

The Court concluded with the observation that “the City’s appeal arguments appear to address issues which might have been raised if Gonzalez’s allegations had been substantiated. But because the Arbitrator found those allegations of police misconduct were never corroborated or proven, we reject all the arguments asserting violations of state law. Also, we conclude from our review that the essence of the Arbitrator’s award properly was drawn from the CBA, which he interpreted and applied.”

City of Waltham v. Waltham Police Patrol Officers’ Union, 2015 WL 3755905 (Mass. App. 2015).