Court rules against reinstating seven Pittsburgh corrections officers

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Commonwealth Court on Wednesday reversed an arbitrator's decision that would have returned seven suspended officers to work at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh after inmates alleged abuses on the prison's F Block.

The officers' union pledged an immediate appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Commonwealth Court, in a decision by Judge Anne E. Covey, found that corrections officers Harry Nicoletti, Kevin Friess, Tory Kelly, Jerome Lynch, Brian Olinger, Sean Storey, Kevin Johnson and John Michaels did not file grievances within 15 working days of their suspensions, as required by their union's contract with the state Department of Corrections. Mr. Nicoletti, it said, filed 28 working days after getting a written notice of his suspension, and the others filed 87 days after they got notice.

Arbitrator Ronald F. Talarico ruled a year ago that their indefinite suspensions without pay or benefits violated the union contract, and that the violations were ongoing, so time limits did not void their grievance. The department appealed and the court found that there was no language in the contract to back Mr. Talarico's interpretation.

Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association spokesman Dave La Torre said the union "is disappointed that the judge relied on a technicality rather than addressing the denial of the due process rights of these officers. ... As a result, they and their families continue to suffer greatly." Department spokespersons could not be reached late Wednesday.

Mr. Nicoletti, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lynch and fellow suspended corrections officer Bruce Lowther have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from inmate allegations of systematic abuse of sex offenders held on F Block. They face trials later this year and early next year.

Mr. Friess, Mr. Olinger and Mr. Storey were charged, but all charges were dropped or thrown out. The department has not returned them to work. Mr. Michaels, a former sergeant, was never charged but was fired. Mr. Johnson was suspended but later returned to work after being demoted from sergeant to officer.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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