Arbitrator Finds Word “Retire” Ambiguous

Under Ohio law, the usual retirement tenure for firefighters and law enforcement officers is 25 years of service. Officers and firefighters who retire prior to completing 25 years of service are eligible for an actuarially-reduced benefit known as a “Service Commuted Retirement,” payable on the 25th anniversary of their hire date.

In June 2006, a firefighter with the City of Shaker Heights, Ohio who had 17 years of service submitted a letter of resignation. Subsequently, the firefighter amended his letter stating that it was his intention to retire. Local 516 of the International Association of Fire Fighters contended that the firefighter was entitled to a payout of his accrued but unused sick leave. Under the contract’s sick leave article, such payouts are paid to firefighters who “retire.”
When the City refused to make the sick leave payout, Local 516 challenged the City’s decision in arbitration. An arbitrator upheld the grievance.

The Arbitrator began with the proposition that the contract’s use of the term “retire” was ambiguous. The firefighter argued that the word “retire” could capture either the City’s notion (that the individual depart employment with a normal service retirement) or that of Local 516 (that the individual have either a normal service-based retirement or a “Service Commuted Retirement”). Since the contract was ambiguous, the Arbitrator believed it was appropriate to turn to “extrinsic aids” in interpreting and applying the contract.

The foremost “extrinsic aid” relied upon by the Arbitrator was the past practice of sick leave payouts in the Department. On five prior occasions, firefighters who were similarly situated had been accorded sick leave payouts even though they had not reached 25 years of service. The City protested that the payments were made in error without the knowledge of the Department of Human Resources. The Arbitrator found this protest unavailable, noting that the City’s finance department was aware of the payouts, and holding that the knowledge of the Fire Department “certainly imputable and binding on the City.”

The Arbitrator ordered the City to pay the firefighter a leave payout of $14,404.96.

City of Shaker Heights, Ohio, LAIG 6584 (Vana, 2007).

This article appears in the May 2008 issue