REUTERS – N.Y. town lacked power to take employees’ commuter cars: court

ALBANY, N.Y. (Reuters) – A Long Island town improperly stopped providing more than 40 employees with cars to commute to work without first negotiating the move with their union, the Court of Appeals has ruled.

The court Thursday rejected the town of Islip’s claim that it did not have to engage in collective bargaining before stripping the employees of their benefits to use town-owned cars for commuting in 2008.

The 20-year-old practice violated a local law that banned personal use of town-owned vehicles, the town said.

The court said that commuting did not qualify as personal use under the town law, and that Islip had violated Article 14 of the state Civil Service Law. The so-called Taylor Law bars public employers from unilaterally stripping unionized workers of “economic benefits” they have traditionally enjoyed.

“Whatever the merits of the town’s position, we do not reach and need not consider them because the relevant past practice was not, in fact, illegal under the local law,” Judge Susan Read wrote for the court.

Read said, however, that the board’s order for the town to give the cars back to the employees was impractical because many of the cars had already been sold. The court sent the case back to the board to devise a different remedy.

In dissent, Judge Eugene Pigott agreed with the town that commuting constituted a personal use of a vehicle, which is prohibited by the local law.

“The conduct engaged in by the town and its employees was against the law and PERB’s determination could not make it legal,” Pigott wrote, joined by Judge Robert Smith.

The decision Thursday upheld a 2011 ruling by the state Public Employment Relations Board.

Liam Castro of Koehler & Isaacs, who represented the United Public Service Employees Union, said he was pleased with the decision.

The union had claimed the town changed the commuter-car policy to undermine stalled contract talks.

“Much time and taxpayer monies are spent on avoiding negotiations, both of which could have been saved if the town here simply negotiated with the union,” said Castro.

Ernest Stolzer, who represented Islip, was not available for comment. Anthony Zumbolo, the executive director of PERB, did not return a call.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Judges Victoria Graffeo, Jenny Rivera and Sheila Abdus-Salaam concurred with Read.

The case is Town of Islip v. New York State Public Employment Relations Board, New York State Court of Appeals No. 95.

For the town: Ernest Stolzer of Bond, Schoeneck & King.

For the PERB: David Quinn.

For the union: Liam Castro of Koehler & Isaacs.