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Timberlake v. Douglas County

Supreme Court of Nebraska

July 17, 2015

RACHELLE L. TIMBERLAKE, APPELLEE,
v.
DOUGLAS COUNTY, NEBRASKA, A POLITICAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE OF NEBRASKA, APPELLANT

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the District Court for Douglas County: W. MARK ASHFORD, Judge.

Donald W. Kleine, Douglas County Attorney, Bernard J. Monbouquette, and Jimmie L. Pinkham for appellant.

John E. Corrigan, of Dowd, Howard & Corrigan, L.L.C., for appellee.

HEAVICAN, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, STEPHAN, MCCORMACK, MILLER-LERMAN, and CASSEL, JJ.

OPINION

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[291 Neb. 388] Connolly, J.

I. SUMMARY

The appellee, Rachelle L. Timberlake, is an employee of the Douglas County Department of Corrections. She sustained a concussion while aiding her supervisor, who was having a seizure. She brought this declaratory judgment action to have the court determine her right to " injured on duty" (IOD) benefits under her collective bargaining agreement (CBA). She also requested attorney fees under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act).[1]

The CBA provides IOD benefits to department employees who are injured while performing a high-risk duty. The CBA provides that high-risk duty " includes (1) responding to a Code, and (2) interaction with an inmate while that inmate is engaged in an act of violence with the officer, another [291 Neb. 389] inmate or himself/herself." The dispute centers on whether this sentence provides a nonexclusive list of high-risk duties or conjunctive elements that an employee must satisfy to qualify for benefits. The court concluded that the contract

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was unambiguous and awarded Timberlake IOD benefits. It also awarded her attorney fees under the Wage Act. Although our reasoning differs somewhat from the court's reasoning, we conclude that it correctly ruled Timberlake was injured while performing a high-risk duty. We affirm.

II. BACKGROUND

Timberlake is a Corrections Officer I for the department. The terms and conditions of her employment are subject to a CBA between Douglas County and the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 8. Timberlake worked as an escort at the county jail, relieving officers who are assigned to specific housing units and escorting inmates who are moved through the facility. Her specific position was entitled " 2 Delta Escort R1" : " 2 Delta" referred to her floor assignment. Apart from her other duties, " R1" meant she was a first responder for any emergencies in the facility.

On July 22, 2011, she saw her supervisor go limp and start to slide out of his chair during a seizure. While trying to protect him from hitting his head, she lost her balance and hit her own head against a concrete wall, sustaining a concussion. She called a " code green," which is a request for medical personnel to assist in an area. She said she called a code green because her supervisor was in severe distress and she wanted medical personnel there to assist them.

Soon after the accident, Timberlake was taken to the hospital and missed several days of work. When she returned to work, she requested IOD benefits. She received workers' compensation temporary disability benefits. But IOD benefits ensure that a qualified employee receives his or her full salary starting on the day of the injury, which is greater compensation than workers' compensation benefits provide. The department's director, Mark Foxall, denied Timberlake IOD [291 Neb. 390] benefits, and she sought review by the IOD committee, established under the CBA. The committee recommended that she be granted IOD benefits because her actions were in response to an emergency. Foxall again denied benefits. He stated in a letter to Timberlake that " while a code is involved, it neither involves an inmate nor were there any acts of violence."

After exhausting her administrative remedies, she filed this declaratory judgment action and sought attorney fees under the Wage Act. She alleged that IOD benefits are wages under the Wage Act and that the county violated the act by denying her these benefits.

Timberlake testified that there are five color codes an officer might send to others in the facility. She said a code blue means an officer needs assistance, while a code green means the officer needs medical personnel. A code red alerts officers to a fire, and a code orange alerts officers to an escape. Finally, an officer sends a code yellow to signal a false alarm.

Foxall testified that a code blue was a request for assistance in response to some type of violence, such as an altercation between inmates or between inmates and staff. He said an officer might also call a code blue for assistance if an inmate was menacing or threatening in any manner. Foxall admitted that Timberlake had a duty to respond to any code called by an officer in her area and a duty to respond to any emergency she witnessed that would warrant an officer calling a code. He admitted that the physical incapacity of a corrections officer could pose a security threat and should be reported. He could not recall whether he had authorized IOD benefits for an employee injured while responding to a code other than a code blue. He said he had typically authorized benefits

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for employees responding to a code blue involving an inmate, because the CBA authorized that. He admitted that the CBA's list of high-risk duties was nonexclusive.

At the close of the evidence, the county argued that the CBA unambiguously excluded IOD benefits for injuries sustained in the circumstances presented by Timberlake's claim. Nonetheless, it requested that the court allow it to come back [291 Neb. 391] and present extrinsic evidence about the CBA's meaning if the court concluded that the contract was ambiguous. Its attorney stated that the county could present the testimony of two negotiators but did not state what their testimony would show. The court, however, stated from the bench that the CBA provided a nonexclusive list of high-risk duties and that the facts showed the CBA entitled Timberlake to IOD benefits.

In its written order, the court stated that after hearing Timberlake's and Foxall's testimonies, it concluded that the meaning of article 25 of the CBA was unambiguous. It stated that article 25, which governs IOD benefits, did not specify the type of code that an employee must be responding to in order to receive IOD benefits for an injury. It concluded ...


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