Sunday, July 27, 2014

A weapon in the parking lot, the statute of limitations and public policy - court rejects challenge to arbitrator's award

In its decision in Alabama Gas Corp. v Gas Fitters Local Union No. 548, the District Court for the Northern District of Alabama denies Alabama Gas' request to set aside an award of Arbitrator Jack Clarke and instead grants the Union's request to confirm the award.

The dispute arose out of the dismissal of grievant, a senior mechanic at Alagasco. Co-workers of grievant had reported comments attributed to grievant they found troubling and which the Company believed indicated a potential for workplace violence. During the investigation of the incident grievant admitted making the comments alleged, and also admitted the possession of a firearm in his personal vehicle in the Company's parking lot.

After a hearing, Arbitrator Clarke concluded that the statements attributed to grievant were, taken in context, not threatening and were not "noteworthy" with respect to a propensity for violence. He also noted, however, that the Company had conceded that the "main factor" in the termination was grievant's possession of a loaded handgun in his vehicle in the Company parking lot. The Company maintained that this was contrary to its employment rules.

. While finding that possession of the weapon was a serious act of misconduct, the arbitrator concluded that the penalty of termination was "so excessive a punishment as to exceed the bounds of reasonableness." Accordingly, he reduced the penalty to a thirty day suspension and ordered the Company to reinstate grievant with back pay for the remaining period.

Alagasco filed suit to set aside the award as contrary to public policy. The Union filed a counterclaim seeking to confirm the award.

Alagasco initially sought the dismissal of the Union's counterclaim on the basis that it had been filed more than three months after the award, allegedly outside the applicable statute of limitations. Rejecting this claim, the Court observed:

Alagasco claims that Local 548's counterclaim is filed outside the three-month limitations period set forth in United Steel v. Wise Alloys, 642 F.3d 1344 (11th Cir. 2011). That three-month limitations period, however, governs actions to vacate arbitration awards and thus is inapplicable to Local 548's counterclaim. The statute of limitations for actions to enforce arbitration awards is six months. Samples v. Ryder Truck Lines, 755 F.2d 881, 888 (11th Cir. 1985). Assuming the limitations period begins on the date of the arbitration award, the counterclaim is not barred, as Local 548 filed its answer and counterclaim on October 2, 2013, less than six months from the date of the arbitration award on May 16, 2013.

The Court also rejected the Company efforts to set aside the award on public policy grounds. Observing that the Company's argument was premised on OSHA's general duty clause, the Court determined that this provision "does not constitute an explicit, well defined public policy justifying the vacatur of the arbitration award in the case at bar."  The Court also found inapplicable Alagasco's reliance on the 11th Circuit's decision in Delta Air Lines v. Air Line Pilots Ass'n (vacating an arbitration award reinstating a pilot who flew a passenger jet while intoxicated). It found that decision distinguishable at least three significant ways. First, [Grievant's] misconduct was not integral to the performance of his employment duties. Second, [Grievant] may have violated Alagasco's Policy No. 401, but he did violate federal  agency regulations and the criminal law that formed the basis of a well-defined and dominant public policy. Third, [Grievant's] reinstatement was not a clear violation of any public policy.

However, the Court denied the Union's request for attorney's fees finding the Company's reliance on the Delta Air lines decision was not "wholly unreasonable."

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