Sunday, January 8, 2017

Management rights clause doesn't supersede ADA - Court confirms arbitrator's award

A Solo Cup facility decided to end its lease of sit down fork lifts and instead to purchase several for its use. After a review of various options, Solo elected to purchase stand up fork lifts, concluding that these provided better safety and reduced the risk of injury. 

Tamela Wells was a bargaining unit employee who had operated a fork lift for a significant portion of her thirty-two years at the facility. Following the introduction of the stand up fork lifts, she sought an accommodation allowing her to continue to use a sit down lift. Wells presented medical information supporting her claim that the extended standing caused by the new fork lifts created problems for her. While the parties were initially able to accommodate Wells request to allow her to take more frequent breaks from operating a stand up fork lift, they ultimately came to impasse on her (and her physician’s) assertion that frequent breaks were inadequate and that she needed to be allowed to regularly utilize a sit down lift instead of a stand up one. 

Solo maintained that allowing this would be contrary to the improved safety the stand up lifts provided and that the management rights clause of the cba expressly authorized it "to change or eliminate existing methods of operations, equipment or facilities...." Concluding that it was unable to accommodate her request, and that there were no other available positions for her, Solo terminated Wells' employment.

Wells' Union (Teamsters Local 528) grieved that decision and the dispute was submitted to Arbitrator William Dealy for resolution. Arbitrator Dealy upheld  the grievance. He recognized that the cba allowed the Company to change equipment, but concluded that the Company breached its ADA obligations by failing to accommodate Wells. He ordered the Company to "provide the Grievant with a sit-down style forklift to use to perform her work." 

Solo sought to vacate the award, arguing that the award "usurped Solo's power to implement new equipment" and that, in any case, the award was not authorized by the ADA. 

The District Court for the Southern District of Georgia rejected both of these contentions and confirmed the award. Solo Cup Operating Corp. v. Teamsters Local 528. The Court noted that the arbitrator recognized the Company's contractual right to introduce new equipment and found that the award did not contravene that right. It concluded:

… the arbitrator may have concluded that, though Solo had the general power to manage its equipment, Article 5 did not obviate the possibility that Article 27 [the nondiscrimination article] could require Solo to introduce unique equipment for a single employee. While Solo may disagree with such an interpretation of the agreement, it is not so implausible that it warrants vacating or modifying the award.

The Court also rejected Solo's claim that the arbitrator erred by ordering it to adopt a specific accommodation, i.e to provide  grievant with sit down fork lift. The Court noted that the parties had previously discussed potential alternatives but were unable to agree. It noted:

…while the arbitrator may have been permitted to simply instruct the parties to decide on an accommodation themselves, he was not required to do so. As noted, the arbitrator framed the issues as: "Did the Company violate provisions of the parties' collective bargaining agreement and/or any provisions of Federal law . . . ? If so, what is the remedy?" (Doc. 24-4 at 24 (emphasis added).) And he decided that the appropriate remedy was to order Ms. Wells reinstated and provided with a sit-down forklift.

Moreover, to the extent the arbitrator contemplated leaving the determination of the specific accommodation to the parties to decide, his refusal to do so makes sense. Solo argues that numerous other accommodations existed, including allowing Ms. Wells to take breaks and moving her to a different position. But Solo rejected similar requests prior to the arbitration. Accordingly, it would not have been especially efficient for the arbitrator to broadly instruct Solo to comply with the ADA because it may have resulted in Solo once again refusing to accommodate Ms. Wells. That is, Solo was required to comply with the ADA prior to the arbitration. There is little reason to think that an abstract instruction from the arbitrator would have changed what Solo viewed as reasonable accommodations.

The Court granted the Union's request to confirm the award, but rejected its claim for attorney fees, finding the Company's position plausible if ultimately unfounded. 

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