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Federal appeals court reverses $8M Wage Act judgment for police

A $8.3 million judgment awarded to police officers for unpaid detail wages has been overturned on appeal, with a federal appeals court finding no violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act occurred.

The ruling demonstrates how ambiguous contract language can backfire in wage disputes.

The case centered on a 10% “administrative fee” that the city of Malden, Massachusetts, deducted from pay earned by officers who volunteered for special detail work in their off-duty hours. Under the officers’ union contract, detail pay was set at 1.5 times officers’ “maximum patrolman’s rate of pay including night differential.”

The plaintiffs argued that this contractual rate should incorporate additional wage enhancements like longevity and education pay, which they earned on top of base salaries. By deducting 10% from this enhanced rate, the city reduced their detail wages below what was outlined in the agreement, they claimed.

Initially, a federal judge agreed that the disputed contract language was ambiguous and ruled for the officers after a bench trial, awarding over $8 million in damages. But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that verdict on appeal.

Analyzing the full contract, the appeals court found that the detail pay provision referred only to base salary plus night differential, not other enhancements. The contract explicitly listed additional factors elsewhere when they were intended to be included. Applying standard canons of interpretation, the phrasing could not be read to incorporate unspecified extra payments, the court ruled.

Moreover, even after the 10% deduction, the officers still received $11 per hour above the contractual requirement. With no evidence that the city underpaid them relative to the bargaining agreement, there was no violation of the Wage Act’s guarantees, the 1st Circuit concluded.

The reversal provides a lesson in careful contract drafting, attorneys say. The officers likely had a reasonable grievance over the city’s questionable deduction. But relying on ambiguity to win a lawsuit can backfire if the court disagrees. In the end, the 1st Circuit decided the plain language favored the city’s narrower interpretation.