Sunday, September 28, 2014

Arbitrators improperly adding obligations to parties' contracts

Two recent decisions overturn arbitrators' awards, finding that the arbitrators acted in excess of their authority by adding obligations to the cba or by ignoring its provisions.

Definition of Gross Misconduct

In National Children's Center v. SEIU Local 500 the District Court for DC overturned the award of the Arbitrator, concluding that he had improperly ignored the terms of the cba.  The cba provided that just cause was defined as "NCC's determination that an employee does not meet this high standard [of performance, quality and care], so long as NCC does not exercise its discretion in a manner that is arbitrary, capricious or without foundation ...." NCC had also issued rules, as provided for in the cba, which defined gross misconduct as including removing, without permission, NCC property or the property of another employee.

Grievant had, at the request of an employee who had been dismissed, removed from the facility certain equipment the dismissed employee claimed belonged to her. After grievant informed NCC of what she had done, NCC terminated her employment for claimed violation of the rule.

The arbitrator concluded that grievant's conduct had violated the rule, but that her conduct did not constitute "gross misconduct." The arbitrator determined that NCC had therefore acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it terminated grievant's employment. He ordered grievant's termination reduced to a 30 day suspension.

NCC sought to set aside the award, and the District Court granted the motion. It concluded:

In this case, the arbitrator denied NCC the benefit of the bargained-for terms of its collective bargaining agreement, specifically, NCC's right to distinguish and define "gross misconduct." The arbitrator acknowledged that Section 703.6 fulfilled legitimate management purposes and that [grievant] had no reasonable excuse for her ignorance of the rule. ... Nonetheless, the arbitrator contravened the express terms of the collective bargaining agreement by finding that [grievant's] conduct "d[id] not rise to the level of gross misconduct." .... The collective bargaining agreement reserved to NCC the discretion to craft workplace rules and define "gross misconduct." See 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement at 25. The arbitrator therefore ruled in contravention of the collective bargaining agreement by "substitut[ing] his [own] judgment or discretion for NCC's judgment or discretion." ...

 The court found that rather than interpreting the cba, the Arbitrator had substituted his judgment for "the clear management rights provided in the collective bargaining agreement."

The court therefore remanded the dispute to the arbitrator for a determination of whether NCC acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when it fired grievant for what the rule defined as gross misconduct.

Implied terms of the cba

In County of Lebanon v. AFSCME District Council 89, Local Union 2832, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a lower court's refusal to confirm an award of Arbitrator Jane Rigler that had ordered the County to rescind the contracting out of a nursing homes' dietary department.

The contract between the County and the Union provides that "[i]n the event the [County] sells, leases, transfers or assigns any of its facilities" it is obligated to attempt to place the affected employees with the new employer and to provide thirty day notice to the Union. The Arbitrator concluded that this provision was applicable to the contracting of the dietary department, but that while the contract imposed no explicit prohibition on contracting out the work, an implied obligation of good faith and fair dealing barred the County from doing so without first  "fully and fairly dealing with the Union." The Arbitrator ordered the County to resume operation of the department and offer reemployment to all affected employees.

The County sought to set aside the award, and the Court of Common Pleas agreed. The Union appealed, and the Commonwealth Court has now affirmed.

In rejecting the Arbitrator's finding of an "implied obligation" the Court observed:

Notably, the Arbitrator ... found that the CBA "impose[d] no explicit constraint on the County's ability to contract out Cedar Haven, dietary services, work."... The Arbitrator then concluded that because the Article was silent as to the circumstances, the Article was also silent as to the County's pre-transfer obligations to the Union, and that such pre-transfer obligations should include participation by the Union in the decision-making process. Such a conclusion, however, is contrary to the plain language of Article XXXIII, which expressly lays out the County's dual pre-transfer obligations to the Union: (1) attempted placement of employees and (2) at least thirty days' notice. The arbitrator may not have liked the terms, or thought they offered the Union insufficient protection, but she was "confined to interpretation and application" of the CBA and was not free to "dispense [her] own brand of industrial justice." ... The Arbitrator, in other words, "was obliged to apply the agreement as written, without imposing additional terms that modify and limit what the parties expressed."

Concluding that the Arbitrator's decision attempted to impose duties that were not provided for in the cba, the Court affirmed the lower court's refusal to enforce the award. 

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