Monday, October 8, 2012

Statute of limitations, advisory opinion, past practice, contempt

The Massachusetts District Court addressed all of these topics in deciding cross motions to set aside and confirm an arbitrator's award. Western Massachusetts Electric Co. v. IBEW Local 455  The dispute arose when Western Massachusetts Electric sought to send electricians to Connecticut to assist a sister company in repairing storm damage. After its initial attempt to solicit volunteers proved unsuccessful, WME announced that it would assign employees to travel. Ultimately, however, enough employees volunteered and involuntary assignments proved unnecessary. The union nevertheless sought to arbitrate its claim that the Company was without authority to assign employees out of state without the Union's consent.

At the arbitration hearing the Union presented evidence it claimed showed that WME violated past practice by announcing that it would force employees to work in Connecticut. In contrast, WME maintained that it had previously sent employees to Connecticut for training, to pick up parts, and for recertifications. It also relied on its contractual right to assign the work force. Additionally it argued that the case was moot since no one was actually forced to go, and claimed that the Union was improperly seeking an advisory opinion. The arbitrator agreed with the Union, finding that the case was not moot since the dispute could readily recur and there remained a live dispute. In addition, relying on an earlier arbitration between the parties that found that past practices became equivalent to a written term of the contract, he found the evidence supported the Union's grievance. Because no one was harmed, however, he awarded no monetary remedy. WME filed suit to set aside the award, and in response the Union sought to confirm it.

The District Court first granted the Union's motion to dismiss WME's action as being barred by the applicable statute of limitations. WME had filed its complaint eighty nine days after receipt of the arbitrator's award. Rejecting WME's claim that the applicable limitations period was the ninety day period of the Federal Arbitration Act, the Court instead found that the applicable period in Massachusetts was the thirty days, borrowing the period from Massachusetts law. Accordingly, the court  dismissed WME's action to set aside the award, but then turned to the Union's motion to confirm.

The Court agreed with the arbitrator that the case was not moot, noting that the arbitrator applied essentially the same standard as would a court. The court also found the arbitrator plausibly determined that there was no past practice of unilaterally assigning employees out of state. Finding that the arbitrator's decision was within the scope of the cba the Court agreed that the award should be confirmed.

It rejected, however, the Union's contention  that any future violations would be subject to the court's contempt power, noting instead that in any future cases an arbitrator must determine the weight to be afforded to the earlier award.

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