Sunday, August 18, 2013

Off duty conduct, credibility and progressive discipline

Arbitrator Clarence Rogers has upheld the dismissal of a police officer who had allegedly attempted to report to work under the influence of alcohol. In doing so he discussed several topics he considered in making his decision.

Grievant had been out with friends on the evening before Thanksgiving. She was drinking, and a coworker called the officer in charge to report what he had observed. The OIC called grievant to remind her she was scheduled to work a voluntary overtime dispatch shift beginning at 3 a.m.  Grievant explained that she erroneously believed she was scheduled for the following night and had been drinking and would be unable to make the dispatch shift. Grievant was also scheduled to report for her normal tour at 7 amThanksgiving day. The OIC reported the incident to the Chief. The OIC also reported that grievant had been observed operating her vehicle by another officer, who arranged to drive her home. The Chief went to grievant's house shortly before 7 a.m. He observed grievant in full uniform, with her firearm, getting into a vehicle. After asking her what had happened the previous evening, he directed her to remove her firearm and arranged transportation for a drug/alcohol test. The test showed a blood alcohol content of .139. Grievant's employment was terminated and the case was ultimately submitted to arbitration.

At the hearing, the Chief agreed that grievant was neither on duty nor on township property at the time she was sent to be tested. Grievant testified that she had been entering a friend's vehicle to use the cell phone to report off work when the Chief observed her.

Initially, Arbitrator Rogers noted:

The general rule is that an employer has no right to use its disciplinary power to regulate the lives and conduct of its employees outside the workplace. There are some generally accepted exceptions to this principle. The dividing line is the employer's legitimate business interest and the employee's right to privacy.1
1The standards were first articulated by Arbitrator Louis C. Kesselman in W.E. Caldwell Co., 28 LA 435, 436-37 (1957), where he held that discharge for conduct away from the work place is impermissible unless: 1) behavior harms Company's reputation or product. 2) behavior renders employee unable to perform his duties.. 3) behavior leads to refusal, reluctance or inability of other employees to work with him ...

He noted, however, that off duty activity committed against the public, in public places, "requires special scrutiny," and that public employees, particularly those engaged in law enforcement, are held to an even higher standard. A law enforcement official who violates the law "destroys public confidence in law enforcement, demoralizes the entire enforcement agency, and brings discredit to his/her employer."

Assessing credibility, the Arbitrator rejected grievant's explanation that she was going to the car to call out from work. He noted that grievant was in full uniform, with a firearm, and did not immediately tell the Chief of her plan to call out. Had she intended to call out she would, he believed, have said so at the time.

The arbitrator further noted that while grievant had no prior discipline related to alcohol use, her prior record did not help her situation. He observed:

Progressive discipline is good employment relations practice, since it can correct bad performance and preserve a satisfactory employment relationship that benefits the employer and employee. Grievant has been progressively disciplined in the past. However, when an employee's misconduct is so severe that continued employment would undermine an employer's ability to function effectively, discharge is deemed appropriate. This is true even if the employee has received no similar discipline; and is unlikely to repeat the offense. Discharge serves the legitimate purpose of deterring other employees from engaging in such conduct. See e.g. Freemen United Coal Co., 82 LA 861, 866.

Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Arbitrator determined that grievant's actions justified the township's decision and that the discharge was for just cause.

Arbitrator Rogers' award in FOP Ohio Labor Council and Perkins Township can be found here.

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