Sunday, September 13, 2015

Off duty misconduct, just cause, burden of proof and leniency

All of these topics are  addressed in a recent award by Arbitrator Howell Lankford in International Association of Firefighters, Local 27 and City of Seattle Fire Department. Arbitrator Lankford denies the grievance filed on behalf of a firefighter for actions relating to an alleged assault on homeless individuals in the City's Pioneer Square area.

While off duty, grievant and two friends attended a Seattle Sounders game. Before, during and after the game, grievant consumed a number of drinks. At some point grievant and his friends were walking to a local restaurant when they observed several homeless people on or near the Fallen Fireman's Memorial. A dispute ensued and became physical and the fighting continued for about eight minutes. The identity of the aggressor was disputed, but grievant and his friends were arrested for assault.

After an investigation, grievant's employment was terminated. The charges specified in the Notice of Termination included: 1. Aggressive Fighting with Homeless Victims, 2. Interference with Law Enforcement Investigation, 3. Misuse of Position, and 4 Negative Community Impact.

The termination was grieved and ultimately brought to arbitration before Arbitrator Lankford.

In deciding the issue, Arbitrator Lankford first reviewed the concept of "just cause." He observed:

Many learned volumes have been written on the notion of just cause in American labor arbitration. In the end, however, just cause is simply a distillation of our shared response to some of the common, occasional shortcomings of employee discipline. Most of the issues arising under the just cause standard divide into three classes: It is not just to discipline an employee for misbehavior that he or she did not actually commit. It is not just to exact a disciplinary penalty which the employee could not have known to be a possible consequence of such misbehavior. And it is not just to administer the disciplinary process in fundamentally unfair and irregular ways.5

5The Department proposes arbitrator Daugherty’s “seven tests” from Enterprise Wire and other reported cases ... . The “seven tests” have generated a very substantial body of scholarly discussion, but that approach does not represent the view of a majority—or even a very substantial minority—of current main line American labor arbitrators.

Applying these standards, Arbitrator Lankford addressed the appropriate burden of proof. He rejected the Union's contention that the City should be held to a "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard, but also rejected the City's claim that it should be held only to a preponderance of the evidence test. He concluded:

The Union points out that NAA arbitrator Mike Beck wrote in 2005 in a case between SEIU 925 and King County that “ discharge cases involving alleged...stigmatizing behavior a significant number of arbitrators impose a beyond a reasonable doubt standard.” (At 24.) But in that case arbitrator Beck honored the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard only in the breach. The cited case did involve stigmatizing misbehavior and what arbitrator Beck actually required was proof by clear and convincing evidence. In my first 30-odd years as a labor arbitrator, I have not yet heard or read a case in which it would have been appropriate to require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, I agree that a majority of main line labor arbitrators recognize that some discharge cases—those alleging misbehavior that would be criminal and would have catastrophic career implications—require proof by clear and convincing evidence. Because this is not such a factually close case that the measure of the City’s burden of proof matters to the outcome, I assume without deciding that the City must prove its case by clear and convincing evidence.

On the merits, and relying primarily on several recorded 911 calls made at the time of the incident, the Arbitrator concluded that the City had established that grievant had instigated, escalated and returned after having an opportunity to disengage. He rejected the Union's claim that grievant's acquittal on a misdemeanor charge of assault and malicious harassment of the homeless preluded a finding of just cause, noting the differing burden's of proof and evidentiary standards. He also found that the City had established that grievant interfered with the police investigation by actively misleading police officers on the scene. He also concluded that the evidence "clearly established" that grievant's conduct had a significant impact on the Department's relationship with the community, and in particular the homeless community. However he found unsupported the allegation grievant had requested special consideration because of his status as a firefighter. Based on these findings, he found the City had just cause for the termination.

Finally he declined the Union's request that grievant be given a "second chance" because he had  entered and successfully completed an alcohol rehabilitation program, noting:

In the past, as in the case of [], the Department has given some firefighters a second chance in light of such a voluntary submission to treatment. If I were the Department, I might extend that same discretion to [grievant], but that is the Department’s discretion, not an arbitrator’s.25 The Department established just cause for his discharge by clear and convincing evidence, and the Union’s grievance must be dismissed.
25The Department quotes the renowned arbitrator Whitney McCoy, from the very first volune of BNA’s collection of labor arbitration awards: “The only circumstances under which a penalty imposed by management can be rightfully set aside by an arbitrator are those where discrimination, unfairness, or capricious and arbitrary action are proved—in other words, where there has been an abuse of discretion.” Stoakham Pipe Fittings Co., 1 LA 160, 162 (1945). One part of arbitrator Daugherty’s Enterprise Wire discussion that remains valid almost 50 years after its publication is his observation that “lieniency is the prerogative of the employer rather than of the arbitrator; and the latter is not supposed to substitute his judgment in this area for that of the company unless there is compelling evidence that the company abused its discretion.” 46 LA 359, n4 (1966). In this instance, I cannot find a basis for concluding that the Department’s decision to discharge [grievant] was an abuse of its discretion.

The Seattle Times reports on this dispute, Seattle firefighter, acquitted in attack on homeless in park, fails to win his job back and links to the award here.

For another case discussing the impact of an acquittal on the just cause issue see Acquitted of criminal charges, but just cause for dismissal

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