Citing unequal treatment, five ex-Aberdeen Police Dept. employees sue city over sick leave payouts

Suit over sick leave paid to retiring police personnel, not to other, has been brewing for months

Five former Aberdeen Police Department employees have filed a federal lawsuit against the Mayor and City Council, the city's former mayor and its former city manager claiming they were treated unfairly compared to other city employees regarding the payment of unused sick leave upon their retirements.

In addition to naming former Mayor Michael Bennett and former City Manager Douglas Miller as defendants, the suit cites by name six former employees who received sick leave payouts upon retirement that the suit claims should not have been authorized, among them the city's current police chief and another former police officer who later served for a year on the previous city council.

According to court documents, the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Dec. 21. Plaintiffs named are Cornis A. Adkins, Albert F. Severn III, Carol Ann Troy, Kevin S. Beall and Marilyn A. Dudley. The plaintiffs, who are represented by J. Paul Karwczyk Jr., of Bel Air, are seeking payments totaling $123,891 and have requested a jury trial.

"The plaintiffs did not receive any pay for their sick leave," Karwczyk said Tuesday.

He said the plaintiffs retired from the police department between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015, and that they were "all severely financially impacted" by not receiving their sick leave pay.

The lawsuit has been brewing for several months, and the current mayor and council have had a number of closed sessions to discuss what Mayor Patrick McGrady has said was the likelihood of litigation. He would not, however, discuss specifics.

City Attorney Frederick Sussman said Wednesday that he has not yet seen the lawsuit.

"The city has not received or seen the lawsuit and can't comment on it," he said.

McGrady said the city received a notice the suit had been filed, but he and the City Council have not discussed the suit yet.

"Because its ongoing there's not much we can say," McGrady said. "I'm not going to comment on ongoing litigation."

According to the suit, the Mayor and City Council passed a resolution in September 2010 which eliminated the payment of unused sick leave to a retiring employee, but the city continued to make such payments to certain employees through mid-2015. The five plaintiffs, however, did not receive any such payments when they left during the same period.

None of the four City Council members – Sandra Landbeck, Melvin Taylor, Tim Lindecamp and Steven Goodin – were in office when the resolution was passed. Landbeck has been in office since 2011, including the period when the payouts that are subject of the lawsuit were made. Taylor and Lindecamp were elected in 2015, and Goodin was appointed by the mayor in April to fill the fourth council seat that had been vacant.

McGrady, who made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2011, was elected to his first term in the November 2015 election, defeating Bennett who had served eight years.

The plaintiffs are members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 128, which represents municipal police officers in Harford County and which filed state Freedom of Information Act requests to get city documents showing more than $260,000 was paid, according to a lodge official.

"The Fraternal Order of Police has repeatedly attempted to resolve this matter with both the former and current administrations to no avail," Robert Gibbons, vice president of FOP Lodge 128, said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday night. "In lieu of acknowledging their error and negotiating a fair settlement, the City of Aberdeen has unfortunately chosen to litigate this matter and continue to compound its costs to the taxpayers of this city. The purpose of this lawsuit is that a fair and expeditious settlement be reached and those responsible for these unauthorized payments be held accountable."

The suit alleges that six named employees, including current Chief of Police Henry Trabert and Stephen Smith, who retired from the police department in 2014 and later served on the city council for a year, plus 17 other unnamed employees, received payments for unused sick leave after the resolution amending the city personnel policy manual was approved by the mayor and council on Sept. 13, 2010. Prior to that change, employees were eligible to receive payments for up to 400 hours of sick leave, the suit states.

None of those who received the payouts are named as defendants, nor is the amount each received noted; however, the suit alleges one former APD employee allegedly received payment for 800 hours of unused leave.

Trabert, through a police department spokesperson, declined to comment and referred questions to City Manager Randy Robertson.

The suit alleges the payments were made between March 11, 2011 and June 30, 2014, and were authorized by Miller, then the city manager, and approved by Bennett, then the mayor. Miller resigned this winter to become city manager for the Town of Ocean City.

The suit alleges that the five plaintiffs, who retired between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015, were denied payment of their unused sick leave, even though each was employed by the city before the personnel manual was changed in 2010.

By paying the unused sick leave to the one group, the suit claims, "defendants failed to provide equal protection to the plaintiffs and violated their constitutional rights under the United States Constitution Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment..." Hence, the plaintiffs civil rights allegedly were violated.

The maximum amounts being sought by the plaintiffs range from $787.65 to $57,111.72, according to the suit.

Miller, reached at his office in Ocean City, said he has not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on it. He did explain, however, why Aberdeen's leave payout policy was changed in 2010.

Miller noted employees who separated from the city, meaning people who retired, resigned or were terminated, were eligible for a payout of up to 400 hours of sick time and up to 80 hours of vacation time when they left.

Miller said he and other city officials "saw a real problem with that," because employees with long tenures who accrued more than 80 hours of vacation – four to five weeks for some people – would lose that time upon separation from the city.

Employees who accrued large amounts of vacation were in positions of major responsibility and could not take off for several weeks, according to Miller.

"We thought that was inequitable because vacation time, it's something that is given to you," Miller said. "It's almost a property right, whereas sick time is more like an insurance policy. In case you get sick, there's something to protect your income while you get well again."

He said city officials decided to change the policy to allow separated employees to access their vacation time "and just make the sick time an insurance policy."

Employees who separate from the Aberdeen today are eligible for a payout of up to 480 hours of vacation time, which is equal to 12 weeks, Miller said.

Bennett could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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