Unambiguous contract of employment language that is inconsistent with the employer’s policy nevertheless controls

Unambiguous contract of employment language that is inconsistent with the employer’s policy nevertheless controls
Chatelle v North Country Community Coll, 2012 NY Slip Op 08215, Appellate Division, Third Department

When North Country Community College hired Shane Chatelle as its Facilities and Special Projects Manager in 2004, the College’s President provided Chatelle with a letter setting forth his salary and enclosing a copy of the resolution of its Board of Trustees approving the appointment together with a written statement of the Board's "management confidential"* staff policy “purporting to provide,” that among other benefits, that Chatelle would be compensated for up to 180 days of accumulated sick leave upon his severance from employment.

In 2011, Chatelle resigned from his position and requested compensation for his accumulated sick leave. The College, claiming that, despite the statement provided to him upon his appointment, its actual policy authorized compensation for accrued sick leave only upon retirement.

Chatelle sued, contending breach of contract, among other things. Supreme Court granted Chatelle’s motion in part, awarding him $44,114.96 in damages for breach of contract but dismissed his remaining claims. Chatelle and the College “cross appealed” the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The Appellate Division said that the written statement provided to Chatelle upon his employment indicated that he was entitled to "the benefits afforded by the existing [m]aster [a]greements except where modified or defined by the following [benefits]."

With regard to the sick leave benefit, the statement provided that Chatelle was entitled to 30 sick days per year, cumulative to 180 days and "[a]t [the] time of severance sick leave will be compensated."

Although the College, relying on extrinsic evidence, argued that the statement given to Chatelle was in error and that the Board had intended to adopt a policy that only compensated for sick leave at retirement, the Appellate Division said that had “no reason to consider this [extrinsic] evidence because the statement's language is clear and unambiguous.”

Accordingly, said the court, the College is bound by the terms of the writing provided to Chatelle as part of his employment contract “and may not rely on its unilateral mistake to void the agreement,” explaining that the text of the statement is clear and Chatelle does not rely on past practice nor claim “estoppel to enforce his contractual right.”

The Appellate Division, however, modified Supreme Court’s judgment granting Chatelle $44,114.96 as payment for his unliquidated sick leave accruals by reducing the award to $4,770, “representing [Chatelle 's] 159 accrued sick days at $30 per day."

* Presumably Chatelle was designated "managerial" or "confidential" within the meaning of  §201.7 of the Civil Service Law [The Taylor Law] upon his appointment.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: