SARANAC LAKE - The state Supreme Court Appellate Division's Third Department has ordered North Country Community College to pay a former employee about $4,800 in accrued sick pay, but the case may not be over.
In a decision handed down Thursday, Justice Robert S. Rose wrote that NCCC owes Shane Chatelle, the college's former facilities and special projects manager, $4,770 for sick time accrued between 2004 and 2011.
Chatelle's lawyer, Mark Schneider of Plattsburgh, told the Enterprise that he and his client disagree with the court's ruling. Schneider said he'll discuss this week's decision with Chatelle and decide what the next step will be.
"The court decided the case wrong as a matter of law," Schneider said.
Benjamin R. Pratt of the Glens Falls-based law firm Bartlett, Pontiff, Steward and Rhodes represented the college in the case. He said the college is pleased with the decision.
"We think it's correct," Pratt said.
The case dates back to 2011, when Chatelle resigned from his position at the college and claimed the college owed him for 159 days of sick leave, paid at a per-diem rate tied to his annual salary. The college refused to pay, claiming that, despite statements provided to him upon his 2004 hiring, the college's actual policy "authorized compensation for accrued sick leave only upon retirement," according to a copy of Thursday's decision.
Chatelle initiated an Article 78 proceeding against the college, and on Oct. 26, 2011, Essex County Supreme Court Justice Richard Meyer sided with Chatelle, ordering NCCC to pay Chatelle $44,114.96. NCCC appealed the case to the Third Department.
According to court documents, the college's Board of Trustees argued that the statement given to Chatelle when he was hired "was in error and that the Board had intended to adopt a policy that only compensated for sick leave at retirement." Rose called that "extrinsic evidence.
"We have no reason to consider this evidence," he wrote. "(The) respondent (NCCC) is bound by the terms of the writing provided to petitioner (Chatelle) as part of his employment contract and may not rely on its unilateral mistake to void the agreement."
The appellate court overturned Meyer's financial award. Rose said the college's agreement with Chatelle limits sick leave payments to $30 per day for a maximum of 180 days.
"(Chatelle's) claim that he is entitled to sick leave at the per diem rate is unreasonable, as it would result in employees who quit or are terminated being paid for accrued sick leave at a significantly higher rate than those who retire after 10 or more years of service," the decision reads.
"He should get paid a day's pay for every day of sick leave, and that's normally - when you get paid sick leave, you get paid a full day's pay," he said.
Schneider said Meyer's decision was correct. He said that according to Chatelle's contract, payment for sick days wasn't limited to $30 per day.
"For whatever reason, the courts get things wrong, and they did in this case," Schneider said. "We are looking at appropriate legal remedies. ... We're going to pursue appropriate legal action."
Pratt said the college's sick pay policy states that employees who leave for any reason other than to retire aren't entitled accrual payments, but he agreed that Chatelle was led to believe otherwise.
"The court, I think rightfully, said, 'Well, college, you are obligated under the contract that you created,'" Pratt said. "(But) it made no sense to pay someone who resigned or was terminated more than someone who retired in good standing for unused sick leave. I think that's a very fair result under the circumstances."