Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rhode Island Supreme Court finds arbitrator improperly ignored management-rights clause

Grievant was an officer for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. The Department received information that two officers were smoking marijuana in a department vehicle while on duty. An investigation uncovered that one officer had in fact been smoking marijuana in the vehicle, and the second, the grievant, had been in the vehicle but had failed to report the incident. Grievant repeatedly denied seeing the other officer smoking until he was advised that of the existence of a witness, at which time he admitted that the other officer had been smoking marijuana on duty.  Grievant's employment was terminated for failing to report that the officer was smoking marijuana on duty and for dishonesty during the investigation.

 The dispute was pursued to arbitration and an arbitrator converted the termination to a 60 day suspension. In doing so the arbitrator noted that the cba did not contain a schedule of offenses and related discipline and he relied instead on evidence submitted concerning a prior incident of claimed dishonesty which resulted in a suspension. The arbitrator observed:

[i]f, over an extended period of time, management has responded to a particular type of offense with a range or band of discipline based on the individual circumstances and severity of a case, an arbitrator would be hard[-]pressed to go outside that defined spectrum of penalties unless the offense itself is significantly outside said spectrum.

The Department sought review of the decision, and the Superior Court vacated the award finding that the decision was based on a "manifest disregard" of the cba.  It concluded that the arbitrator had "exceeded his authority and reached an irrational result" when he ignored the management rights provision of the cba.

The Union appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which has now affirmed the lower court's decision.  The Supreme Court determined:

Here, the arbitrator did not resolve the dispute based on any provisions in the CBA. In fact, the arbitrator decided—improperly we conclude—that, because the CBA did not list offenses and corresponding penalties, he would not rely on the CBA in making his decision and instead would "look elsewhere for guidance on this question" to reach this result. Not only is the CBA pertinent to the determination of just cause in this case, the arbitrator's failure to consider its terms was a manifest disregard of the contract.

The Management Rights section of the CBA, specifically section 4.1A., provides that
"the employer shall have the exclusive right, subject to the provisions of this [CBA] and consistent with applicable laws and regulations: * * * To hire, promote, transfer, assign, and retain employees in positions within the bargaining unit, and to suspend, demote, discharge or take other disciplinary action against such employees[.]" (Emphasis added.)

The arbitrator wholly overlooked this section of the CBA in his decision.

 The Court rejected the Union's argument that the lower court had incorrectly found that the management rights clause superseded the just cause provision, observing:

 ...we do not agree with this characterization of the trial justice's determination. The trial justice concluded that the arbitrator exceeded his authority when he manifestly disregarded the management-rights provision of the CBA, not that the management-rights provision trumped the just-cause provision. We agree with her conclusion.

 Two justices "respectfully, but nonetheless forcefully," dissented. They believed that the majority was improperly substituting its judgment for that of the arbitrator and that the award was well within the arbitrator's authority to decide whether there was just cause for the discipline.

The Court's opinion in State of Rhode Island Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Corrections Officers can be found here.

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