Sunday, May 22, 2016

CA9: Decision that an award is not "plausible" is insufficient to vacate

A dispute arose between Drywall Dynamics, Inc and the Southwestern Regional Council of Carpenters concerning attempts by the Company to withdraw from a multi employer bargaining arrangement. The Company's initial attempt to terminate its participation was rejected by the Union as untimely. A second rejection occurred after the association and the Union entered into a Memorandum of Understanding extending the cba for an additional year. In response to a grievance concerning the Company's claimed breach of the cba, an arbitration panel determined that the Company's purported withdrawal was untimely. 

The Union sought to confirm the award and the Company sought to vacate it. The District Court vacated the award, concluding that the arbitrator's interpretation of the agreement was not plausible, and that it was contrary to public policy.

On the Union's appeal, the Ninth Circuit has reversed. In doing so it recognized that language of several earlier opinions suggested that an award would be deemed to have drawn its essence from the parties cba as long as it was a "plausible interpretation of the contract." It determined however, that the plausibility inquiry did not authorize an independent basis for an attack on the merits of the award. Finding that the term was "somewhat misleading" the Court decided to eliminate its use. It concluded: is time for us to retire the use of "plausibility" as a term to describe the courts' role in reviewing labor arbitration awards. We do not, of course, propose any substantive change to the settled law in this area, nor could we. We merely reiterate, and emphasize, the fundamental concept  Hawaii Teamsters articulated, drawing on decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence: the quality—that is, the degree of substantive validity—of an arbitrator's interpretation is, and always has been, beside the point. Instead, the appropriate question for a court to ask when determining whether to enforce a labor arbitration award interpreting a collective bargaining agreement is a simple binary one: Did the arbitrator look at and construe the contract, or did he not?

Concluding that the panel's  analysis was grounded in a reading of the parties' agreement the Court found that the award was entitled to be confirmed.

The Court also rejected the Company's public policy challenges to the award which had claimed the award violated a policy of voluntary relationships between employers and multi employer associations and that it improperly imposed union representation on the Company's employees. 

The Ninth Circuit's opinion can be found here.

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