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Frank Higgins, David Snyder and Lower Merion Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 28 v. Lower Merion Township

June 21, 2011

FRANK HIGGINS, DAVID SNYDER AND LOWER MERION FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE, LODGE 28, APPELLANTS
v.
LOWER MERION TOWNSHIP



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dan Pellegrini, Judge

Argued: May 9, 2011

BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE PELLEGRINI

Frank Higgins, David Snyder and the Lower Merion Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 28 (collectively, Officers) appeal from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County (trial court) denying the Officers' petition for review seeking to rescind promotions made by Lower Merion Township (Township) of officers who scored lower than the Officers on competitive examinations for promotion within the police force.

We affirm.

The parties have stipulated to the facts of this case. In early 2009, the Township undertook a promotion testing process to promote persons to the ranks of captain, lieutenant and sergeant on the police force. Officer Higgins received the highest score on the examination for promotion to captain, but the promotion was awarded to another officer. Officer Snyder scored the highest on the examination for promotion to lieutenant, but this promotion was also awarded to another officer.

The Officers believed that they should have received the promotions because they achieved the highest test scores, and they filed a petition for review with the trial court seeking a judicial declaration that the First Class Township Code (Township Code),*fn1 which applies to the Township, required the Township to promote the candidates with the highest test scores. They also sought an order directing the Township to rescind the promotions of the other officers and to promote Officer Higgins to captain and Officer Snyder to lieutenant effective June 3, 2009.

Following a hearing, the trial court denied the petition holding that because Section 638 of the Township Code provided that "every position" be subject to the so-called "choice of three" rule, the Township had the right to promote any of the three highest scoring officers rather than being forced to promote only the one officer with the highest score on the examination. It distinguished cases holding to the contrary that were based on the Borough Code*fn2 and the Second Class County Code (County Code)*fn3 because the relevant statutory language in those laws differed. The Officers then filed the instant appeal.*fn4

On appeal, the Officers contend that the "choice of three" rule in Section 638 of the Township Code is limited to original appointments, but that promotions are governed solely by Section 642, which, at the time relevant to this appeal, limited promotions to be on the merits as ascertained by the examination, which Pennsylvania appellate courts have previously held means that only the highest scorer may be promoted. The Township responds that the cases that the Officers rely on deal with either the Borough Code or County Code, which have different relevant language than the Township Code, and that Section 638, by its use of the phrase "every position," includes promotions in the "choice of three" rule.

The relevant cases involve interpretation of relevant provisions contained in the different municipal codes. The only case directly on point is a non- precedential federal district court case, Fraternal Order of Police, Lower Merion Police, Lodge 28 v. Township of Lower Merion (Lower Merion I), 416 F.Supp. 65 (E.D. Pa. 1976), which supports the Township's position. The District Court relied on Coles v. Judd, 298 A.2d 687 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973), where we interpreted the then- identical language in the Borough Code, identical to the language in the Township Code. Both of those cases distinguished our Supreme Court's decision in McGrath v. Staisey, 433 Pa. 8, 249 A.2d 280 (1968), which supports the Officers' position, especially in light of our decision in Borough of Wilkinsburg v. Colella, 961 A.2d 265 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008).

McGrath interpreted Section 1516 of the County Code, which, at the time, had virtually identical language to Section 642 of the Township Code at the time of the promotions in the instant matter. The Court interpreted the language "Promotions shall be based on merit, to be ascertained by written examination" to mean that the applicant who scored the highest on the examination was the only one who could be promoted. Any other interpretation of this section, according to the Court, would "torture" the plain meaning of the statutory provision. Id. at 11, 249 A.2d at 281. Further bolstering this interpretation of Section 1516 of the County Code was the language in Section 1512 of the County Code, the general appointment provision, which stated, "every position of employment . unless filled by promotion" shall use the choice of three rule. Thus, the County Code, at the time of McGrath, made explicit that the choice of three rule would not apply to promotions, leaving promotion of the highest scorer on the examination the only method of merit promotion.*fn5

In Coles, this Court interpreted Section 1184 of the Borough Code, which, at the time, stated that "every position or employment in the police force" was subject to the choice of three rule, just as Section 638 of the Township Code does now. Unlike the County Code at the time of McGrath, Section 1184 of the Borough Code did not contain the caveat "unless filled by promotion," and we distinguished McGrath based on this difference. Even though Section 1188 of the Borough Code was analogous to and used the same language as Section 1516 of the County Code with regard to promotions, this Court held that because of the difference in language in the general appointment section, it enshrined the choice of three rule rather than the highest score rule as the standard to govern promotions.*fn6 While dealing with a different statute, the language interpreted in Coles is the same as the relevant language in the Township Code in the instant case.

Next, Lower Merion I, dealing with the Township Code, the District Court, relying on Coles, held that the interplay of Sections 638 and 642 of the Township Code, which then were the same as they were at the time of the promotions at issue in the present case, likewise enshrined the choice of three rule for promotions because Section 638 of the Township Code included the language "every position" like the old Borough Code and did not include the limiting language "unless filled by promotion" like the old County Code. This case squarely supports the Township's position but is not controlling.

The Officers contend that it is McGrath and not Coles or Lower Merion I that controls the instant case. Coles, they contend, was superseded by statute because the Borough Code has been since amended and is no longer good law. Lower Merion I, besides being non-precedential, relied on Coles. Rather, the more recent case of Borough of Wilkinsburg v. Colella, 961 ...


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