Montana Supreme Court reverses $2.7 million ruling in Billings police union case

By Shanice Harris | Sep 27, 2017

BILLINGS, Mont. (Legal Newsline) – The Montana Supreme Court has reversed a district court's ruling holding that the city of Billings incorrectly paid longevity wage benefits under negotiated collective bargaining agreements (CBA).

The court concluded Aug. 28 that from its review of the record and evidence that the district court made an error in its conclusion. The district court concluded that the longevity provisions of the CBAs were unambiguous, which the high court denied. 

The Supreme Court ruled that the language in the provisions is reasonably subject to more than one interpretation - very different from the exclusion of evidence that the city claimed. 

The court reversed and remanded for further court proceedings in the near future, “consistent with this conclusion, and for consideration at trial of extrinsic evidence about the parties' intent, subject to application of the Rules of Evidence,” according to the opinion.

The city of Billings appealed from the District Court of the 13th Judicial District after the ruling in the case Watters v. City. The district court ruled that the city incorrectly paid wage benefits under the Collective Bargaining Agreements and ordered the city to pay $2.7 million to lead plaintiff Ernie Watters and the class.

Current and retired police officers, who are members of the Montana Public Employees Association-Billings Police Union, negotiated with the city to approve an agreement that would govern the terms of the officers' employment. 

The dispute in the agreement was over the terms of the longevity pay provisions in the CBAs for 2000-2003, 2003-2006, and 2006-2009. The city ultimately paid longevity pay to the officers under the 2000-2003 CBA provision, which states, “Longevity shall be added to each officer’s hourly rate based upon the following formula: 0.45 x 0.01 x the hourly rate of an officer at the beginning of year 1 x years of service,” according to the court's opinion.

The officers filed suit in 2009. They alleged that the city did not correctly calculate their longevity pay under the CBAs, and therefore owed them some money. They claimed that the CBA required the city to pay them accumulation in longevity enhancements, meaning their pay would increase with added time.

The city fired back saying that it initially paid and continued to pay the longevity benefits as negotiated and outlined in the CBA, the opinion states. 

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