SPRINGFIELD – The Fourth District Appellate Court handed a victory to former WCIA newscasters Jerry Slabe and Marta Carreira-Slabe this week.
The ruling issued on Wednesday overturned a lower court decision on the breach-of-contract case, granted summary judgment to the former newscasters and remanded the case back to Champaign County Circuit Court for a hearing on damages.
Slabe had worked for WCIA since 1977 and Carreira-Slabe since 1986. Throughout that time, Slabe testified, his work schedule had always been from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Carreira-Slabe said she typically worked from 3 or 3:30 p.m. until 6:30 or 6:45 p.m.
Their hours were not specified in their employment contracts, which simply stated that the employee agreed to observe the employer's working hours.
In July 1999, Midwest Television Inc. sold WCIA to Nexstar Broadcasting. For the first few months, the newscasters maintained their regular work schedule, but in December 1999 Nexstar announced a new work schedule that was to begin in January 2000.
Under the new schedule, Slabe was to work from 3 to 11 p.m., and Carreira-Slabe was to work from noon to 7 p.m.
The newscasters refused to accept the new work hours and were placed on administrative leave. In February 2000, Nexstar stopped paying them.
A series of complaints and countercomplaints were filed and a hearing was held. In October 2004, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Nexstar.
Slabe and Carreira-Slabe's basic argument was that Nexstar should not have been allowed to impose the new schedule without renegotiating their contracts. The new schedule would have doubled Carreira-Slabe's hours and increased Slabe's by 60 percent.
"We conclude that Jerry's and Marta's expectations that they would continue to work the same hours is consistent with the parties' intention when they entered into the contracts," the Appellate Court ruling stated. "As a result, Nexstar's new work schedule was inconsistent with the parties' reasonable expectations not negotiated for by the parties, and the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Nexstar."
Appellate Court Justice John Turner filed a dissenting opinion.
"Notably, the majority does not consider whether Midwest and its assignee Nexstar could have reasonably expected it had authority to require Jerry to work eight hours per day and Marta seven hours per day," Turner wrote. "This failure results in a misapplication of law, particularly in light of the contract language here."
Nexstar headquarters in Texas referred calls for comment to Chief Operating Officer Duane Lammers in Indiana. Lammers said he had not seen the court ruling and referred calls to WCIA General Manager Russ Hamilton.
"I have not seen the ruling yet," Hamilton said. "I'll have to see what the appellate court had to say, and we'll make a decision on where to go from there."
Carreira-Slabe did not return a message left at her Chicago law office on Thursday.