Sunday, June 5, 2016

Weapons on campus, just cause, management rights and public policy

The Superior Court in Rhode Island has set aside an arbitrator's award that had reinstated, without back pay, a housekeeper at Rhode Island College for having, and misplacing, a gun on campus.

The facts of the case were largely undisputed. Grievant, a thirty year employee, maintained that he was licensed to carry a weapon and that he unintentionally brought the gun with him when he reported to work. He testified that when he realized his error he started to return the weapon to his vehicle but didn't do so because he observed elementary school children near his car. He returned to work with the gun still in his possession. Shortly after leaving work grievant realized the gun was no longer in his possession. He called the College's Safety and Security office and reported that he believed he may have left the gun in a bathroom he was cleaning. The gun was not found in the bathroom, but in a trash can near one of the school buildings. Following an investigation grievant's employment was terminated, and that termination was grieved.

The arbitrator accepted the grievant's assertion that he brought the gun onto campus inadvertently and had no intent to cause harm. However he found grievant's conduct reckless and noted that "no employee can credibly claim to think that bringing a firearm to a college campus could be acceptable behavior." Nevertheless he concluded that termination was too severe a penalty and ordered the College to reinstate grievant without back pay.

The College sought to vacate, and the Union sought to confirm, the award. The Court granted the College's request to vacate. Relying on several cases arising in connection with disputes involving the  Department of Corrections, the Court found that the arbitrator had abused his authority and that his award was contrary to public policy. 

While recognizing that arbitrators have the authority to modify discipline, the court observed:

While the CBA states that just cause is needed to suspend or terminate an employee, it does not state that a different level of just cause is needed to suspend, rather than to terminate, an employee. See CBA, Art. 24. In one clause, the CBA says that just cause is needed to discipline employees, and in another clause, the CBA states that just cause is needed to suspend or terminate employees. Id. However, nowhere in the CBA does it state that more cause must be found to terminate an employee rather than to suspend an employee.

The court acknowledged that the arbitrator listed the management rights clause of the cba as a relevant contract provision, but concluded that he failed to mention or discuss the relevance of that provision. The court found this constituted  "an abuse of the arbitrator's power" and that the arbitrator therefore exceeded his authority.

The court also found the award contrary to public policy, relying on a "dominant, well-defined policy against violence in the workplace." It concluded:

Here, the arbitrator's decision, like the decision of the arbitrator in State v. R.I. Bhd. of Corr. Officers, 819 A.2d 1286, was irrational because it rendered RIC powerless to terminate an employee who had exposed the campus community—employees and students alike—to the security risk of a fully loaded firearm by bringing and then losing said firearm on campus. In light of the strong public policy interest that exists concerning keeping our schools, colleges, and universities safe from violence and crime, it is irrational and contrary to public policy to divest the Board and the State of the authority to terminate an employee who undisputedly violated a policy aimed at creating a safe and efficient campus and workplace.

For both of these reasons the court vacated the award.

News reports do not indicate if the Union intends to appeal. 

The court's opinion can be found here.

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