ATLANTIC CITY — Eighteen police officers, some nearing retirement, have filed a lawsuit against the state and the city to receive payment for all unused sick time amassed during their careers.
The suit, filed Jan. 2 in Atlantic County Superior Court, challenges the cap on accrued benefit payouts as a result of the Municipal Recovery and Stabilization Act of 2016. The law placed the city’s finances under direct oversight of the state Department of Community Affairs and capped unused sick time payouts at $15,000.
The officers’ suit claims that, collectively, their accumulated bank of sick time is $1.66 million.
The suit names the city, the state, the Division of Local Government Services and DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long as defendants.
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Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the DCA, said city employees who retired prior to Nov. 6, 2016 — the day MRSA was signed into law — would receive their full terminal-leave payouts, while those who retired after that date or are planning to will receive amounts not to exceed the $15,000 cap.
“We recognize and value the years of service these police officers have given to Atlantic City, in some cases risking their lives to protect people from harm,” said Ryan. “Because the city’s financial recovery has progressed sufficiently to support certain previously suspended terminal leave payments, the city has initiated these payments to retired police officers. With that said, the city’s financial stability requires sustainable budgetary practices and the implementation of sound fiscal strategies.”
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The attorney for the officers, Arthur J. Murray, said the complaint was only seeking compensation for unused sick time accumulated prior to the MRSA becoming law.
Murray said the 18 officers earned that unused sick time prior to the state takeover and are entitled to it upon retirement.
“We understand that from the state takeover forward, they have the right to change the rules of the game and do what they want to do in terms of that,” he said. “So this is a question of sick time that would have accumulated and vested, in our opinion.”
Murray said most of the officers in the suit will be looking to retire in the coming years and “worked their careers under an assumption as it relates to accumulated sick time.” He said the question at the center of the suit is whether the unused time is a “vested property right” where the government cannot take it away without a signed waiver from the individual.
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“Immoderate terminal leave obligations hinder the city’s budgetary flexibility and cash flow, forcing the city to sacrifice current hiring and employee compensation to support outsized legacy costs generated through unsustainable leave time policies and practices,” said Ryan. “These obligations also compromise the city’s long-term fiscal health.”
Murray said he does not expect a settlement with the state on this matter.
“The officers are going to fight this,” he said. “Ultimately, they’re going to make a court decide whether they are entitled to this money or not. They’re not going to give away what they believe is hard-earned dollars voluntarily.”
The lawsuit filed in January is separate from a similar claim by 10 other Atlantic City police officers, including Josh Vadell, who was shot in the head while on duty in 2016, seeking compensation for unused sick time.