Monday, March 12, 2012

Three recent cases address the role of courts in reviewing arbitration awards

The 10th Circuit, in San Juan Coal Co. v. International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 953 reversed the District Court and enforced an arbitrator’s award. The underlying dispute involved the interpretation of language in the parties’ cba addressing premium pay for work in excess of an employee’s normal shift. The arbitrator had ruled for the Union, but the District Court refused to enforce the award. The Appeals Court noted that while the District Court’s interpretation of the contract was a plausible, its opinion failed to give sufficient deference to the award of the arbitrator. The court noted:

An arbitrator’s interpretation of an agreement, even one that is flawed or based on questionable findings of fact, is due the utmost judicial deference. It matters not that a reviewing court might offer a more cogent reading of the agreement; the arbitrator’s interpretation must be upheld wholly unless it is without textual basis.

Finding the arbitrator’s award had “at least some foundation” in the text of the agreement the Court reversed and remanded with instructions to enter an order enforcing the award.  

Two cases from Ohio, involving public sector agreements, reach similar conclusions. 

 In Field Local Teachers Ass. v. Field Local School Dist. Board of Education, the Court of Appeals refused to reverse the lower court’s decision enforcing an arbitration award concerning evaluations of teachers employed under Limited contracts. The dispute involved the relationship between the contract and an Ohio statute on tenure. The arbitrator had ruled in favor of the School Board and the Union sought to set aside the award. Like the lower court, the Court of Appeals refused to do so. It noted that while “the interpretation of the CBA espoused by the Union is not unreasonable, we cannot substitute our interpretation for that of the arbitrator”

Similarly, in City of Parma v. Parma Firefighters Assn. Local 639 , the court rejected the City’s attempt to set aside an award that reinstated an employee who had tested positive for cocaine. The Court rejected the City’s public policy argument, and found the arbitrator’s interpretation of the City’s drug and alcohol policy, appended to the cba, drew its essence from the contract and was therefore entitled to deference.

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