Sunday, August 2, 2015

Arbitrator's failure to follow prior award not a basis for setting aside award

So held  the Eight Circuit in SBC Advanced Solutions v. Communications Workers of America. The grievance in issue involved a claim by employees that they were performing work of a higher classification and were entitled to a pay differential. The cba called for such a differential when "qualified" employees were "temporarily scheduled or assigned" to perform such work for a period of two or more hours in a week. Arbitrator William McKee sustained the grievance. He initially rejected the Employer's assertion that the employees must be test qualified to perform the higher level work to be eligible for compensation. In doing so he relied in part on prior awards he had issued as well as evidence of bargaining history to conclude that the Union had rejected a Company proposal during contract negotiations that would have required test qualification.

 He then turned to the question of whether the employees had been "temporarily assigned" to perform the higher level work. He concluded that "a]n assignment of higher-level work is temporary until such time as the Company chooses to change the job description of the lower titles to include those duties." In reaching this conclusion Arbitrator McKee "respectfully depart[ed]" from the awards  of two prior arbitrators who had determined that work assignments ceased to be temporary once they became a permanent part of an employee's workload. Arbitrator McKee found that these earlier awards would allow the Company to violate the contract as long as it maintained a violation long enough for the assignment to be deemed permanent. Accordingly he sustained the grievance and retained jurisdiction to resolve disputes about individual employees eligibility for the differential.

The Company sought to set aside the award, arguing that the award failed to draw its essence from the cba and that Arbitrator McKee had erred in failing to follow the earlier awards. The District Court rejected these claims (here), and the Eighth Circuit has now affirmed.

 With specific reference to the argument that the Arbitrator erred in failing to follow the earlier awards on the question of when an assignment was "temporary," the Court concluded:

Arbitrator McKee recognized ... that [his] interpretation was contrary to the interpretation of temporariness in the Heinz and Fowler awards. As we stated in Trailways  "we recognize that there may be situations where an arbitrator will refuse to defer to a prior award involving the same issue," including when "`(1) [t]he previous decision was clearly an instance of bad judgment; (2) the decision was made without the benefit of some important and relevant facts or considerations; or (3) new conditions have arisen questioning the reasonableness of the continued application of the decision.'" 807 F.3d at 1425 n.16 (quoting F. Elkouri & E. Elkouri, How Arbitration Works 428 (BNA 4th ed. 1985)).

Arbitrator McKee explained his declination of deference to a prior award involving a similar dispute by stating his disagreement with the prior decisions's interpretation of the contract's provisions. According to Arbitrator McKee, the Heinsz and Fowler Awards interpreted temporariness in a manner that gave the Company an incentive to violate the CBA as long as they violated it consistently for a given amount of time (or at least until the higher-classified job functions were performed long enough by lower-classified employees to be considered a permanent part of their job). Arbitrator McKee concluded that this interpretation was erroneous because it gave the Company the unilateral ability to render the temporariness requirement meaningless. In sum, Arbitrator McKee's decision to follow certain arbitration awards and not others, based upon those awards' factual and legal differences, does not authorize us to vacate his award under Trailways.

The Court acknowledged that on a second issue, i.e. what constituted an employee performing higher level work, the Arbitrator had not explained his decision not to follow an earlier award under the same contract. While finding that the Arbitrator "should have" explained his departure from the earlier award, his failure to do so did not compel a conclusion that his award should be set aside.

  Finally, the Court rejected the Company's contention that the doctrine of functus officio preluded the Arbitrator from retaining jurisdiction on the remedial issues, finding that while the award determined the Company's liability, it was not a final award triggering application of the doctrine.

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