A lawsuit that sought retroactive pay for seasonal sanitation workers in Buffalo under the city’s living-wage ordinance was dismissed Thursday by the state’s highest court.
The Court of Appeals found that the workers waited too long to file their lawsuit, and it ruled in favor of the city and its control board. The decision reverses rulings of the State Supreme Court and Appellate Division. Both had rejected the control board’s defense that the lawsuit’s filing exceeded the statute of limitations.
The employees’ wages were frozen by the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, which pursued the appeal, with encouragement from the city.
The court’s decision, 4-2, is significant because it preserves the four-month window in which cases can be brought against municipalities and authorities, said attorney A. Vincent Buzard, who represented the authority. New York City filed a brief in support of the authority’s position that the statute-of-limitations should be preserved.
The decision also saves the city more than $1 million, Buzard said.
The court decided that the workers should have brought their action within four months. The wage freeze was enacted by the control board in April 2004, and the lawsuit was filed in January 2008.
The affected workers, of which there were more than 60 at the time the suit was filed, are called seasonal but work year-round, with periodic layoffs to prevent the city from having to pay benefits or offer paid time off. Some have worked for the city for 10 years or more.
Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto introduced a measure to pay the back wages from August 2003 to July 2007 plus interest, but the Council’s Civil Service Committee declined to take action until a decision in the lawsuit had been made.
LoCurto on Thursday said if there is a way to pay the workers anyway, the city should do it, and it seemed like a “technicality” prevented the workers from being paid. “It’s unfortunate that the control board felt the need to appeal the decision,” he said.
Attorney John M. Lichtenthal, who represented the employees, said he was examining the practical effects of the decision and read a brief statement. “It appears that the declaratory judgment against the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority was not upheld by the Court of Appeals. However, the trial court and the Fourth Department of the Appellate Division and their ruling against the City of Buffalo still remains intact.”
Buzard disagreed, and said the decision means the case is over.
In January 2008, Abraham McKinney and others filed a class-action lawsuit covering more than 60 full-time workers, seeking a raise and back pay under the city’s living wage ordinance.
A month later, Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Council supported a move to bring seasonal sanitation workers up to living wage, retroactive to July 2007, when the control board lifted the wage freeze. Thursday’s decision is “an indication the city had acted correctly in transitioning from the wage freeze,” said Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball.
The court’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, dissented and said the control board had no authority to freeze the seasonal workers’ wages because they are not part of a collective-bargaining unit.