Judge Erases Triple Damages in County-Airport Court Case

By IAN FEIN

Finding that the Dukes County commission did not act in bad faith, a superior court judge this week overturned the treble damages awarded in a long-standing salary dispute with the current and former Martha's Vineyard Airport managers.

The amended judgment - which was issued Tuesday morning by the Hon. Richard T. Moses and revises an earlier decision from last July - is significant because it lowers the pecuniary penalties owed in the case from roughly $600,000 to $260,000.

The ruling this week also brings the controversial and costly turf war between the county and airport commissions closer to a final resolution. At a joint meeting on Wednesday night, both commissions voted not to pursue appeals in the case, which - on top of the damages - has cost them some $350,000 in legal fees.

"I do not think it is a wise move for the county to go and appeal the ruling. It would only cost the taxpayers more money," said county commissioner Leslie Leland before offering such a motion. "In the interest of cooperation, it would behoove us not to do that."

County commissioner Robert Sawyer, the lone member of either board who disagreed, said the county should discuss the decision in a closed-door executive session before ruling out future options.

The plaintiffs in the case, current airport manager Sean C. Flynn and former manager William J. Weibrecht, still have 30 days to appeal the most recent ruling. Mr. Weibrecht, who resigned last May, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Mr. Flynn on Wednesday said he was eager to put the dispute behind him.

The decision also comes at a time of uncertainty in county government, driven largely by widespread unhappiness with the airport lawsuit. Four of seven county commission seats will appear on the November state election, which will also include a question about a charter study commission. If approved, the independent commission will be charged with studying both the form and effectiveness of county government.

Both sides in the case have been waiting for the court ruling, a response to a post-trial motion filed by the county last August.

Judge Moses left the merits of the original decision intact, finding only that the trial judge erred when he determined that treble damages were mandatory in the case. The amended judgment hinged on a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision from a different case last July that found treble damages are not required by the state wage law.

Judge Moses further concluded that the trial judge in the airport case, the Hon. Robert H. Bohn Jr., who died last November, would not have awarded treble damages had he known that they were discretionary. Judge Bohn in his decision last summer noted that the county had a plausible argument in the case, which challenged whether the airport or county commission held the power to set airport salaries.

Both sides cited separate state laws to defend their own authority, but Judge Bohn ruled that the Airport Act of 1946 trumped the county charter of 1992. The Martha's Vineyard Airport is the only county-owned airport in the state.

"The trial judge concluded that the relevant statutes were sufficiently ambiguous in their application to provide the county defendants with a colorable argument that their actions were proper," Judge Moses wrote in the decision issued this week. "The court finds that the actions of the defendants in this matter are not outrageous, reckless nor motivated by evil motives."

Judge Moses in his decision also declined a request from the plaintiffs to reopen the trial record and accept evidence of bad faith on the part of the county. He noted that the supreme court decision did not represent new law, but simply an interpretation of existing statutes.

"It is thus apparent that all parties were on notice during the trial of this action that the bad faith of the defendants was an issue which could potentially relate to a claim seeking treble damages," Judge Moses wrote.

While the $170,000 in past wages and interest will be paid from airport revenues, the decision this week required that the $90,000 in attorney's fees owed to Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn must be paid by the county. County officials said they had set aside money in a reserve fund to cover the costs.

The lawsuit began in 2002, when the county refused to pay Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn, who was then the assistant airport manager, at salary levels set by the airport commission that were higher than the county wage scale. In December 2002 the two managers sued the airport commission in superior court for breach of contract, and the airport commission in turn sued the county.

A similar dispute arose this winter when the airport commission in early January hired Mr. Flynn as the new airport manager at a salary of $89,000. The contract disregarded an agreement forged between the two commissions last June, which said the airport commission would hire the managers but set their salaries according to the county pay scale. Airport commissioners in January said the prior agreement was temporary, and negated by the superior court decision last July.

The dispute led to three months of chaos and upheaval, and five new airport commission members were appointed by the county. The two boards are now working together to also resolve an outstanding issue about back rent, and two joint meetings held in the last month were marked by a cooperative tone.

Mr. Flynn said this week that even though the county has refused to pay him the salary set by the airport commission in January, he was confident they would resolve their differences soon.

"The county is putting forth a very good faith effort to reconcile the issue, and I believe there has been significant process. It is currently not a concern of mine," Mr. Flynn told airport and county commissioners on Wednesday. "But, like I've said before, there will need to be work done between the airport commission, the county commission and the county advisory board to form an agreement on how we are all going to operate going forward. Once the dust settles, I think all of us need to make sure we are on the same page."