Sunday, February 26, 2017

Arbitrators exceeding their powers - three courts reverse

Arbitrator ignored limitations in cba

The cba between CenterPoint Energy and the Gas Workers sets forth several offenses which provide "absolute causes" for discharge and limit an arbitrator to the question of whether the employee, in fact, committed the offense. 

An employee was dismissed for allegedly "falsifying time sheets and neglect of duty," both of which are among the "absolute cause" offenses. The dispute about the dismissal was submitted to arbitrator Richard Miller for resolution. In his award, Arbitrator Miller found that the Company had established that grievant had engaged in the conduct alleged on some, but not all, of the dates in question. Nevertheless, he concluded that the Company did not have just cause for the dismissal. Rejecting the Company's reliance on the "absolute cause" language, the Arbitrator concluded that he was still free to modify the discipline.  He held:

To interpret Article 26 in any other manner would violate all of the basic notions fairness and due process firmly established in the history of industrial relations and implicit in Article 26, which also includes a just cause standard for discipline and discharge.

Arbitrator  Miller converted the discipline to a suspension without back pay and ordered the grievant's reinstatement.


CenterPoint sought to vacate the award, claiming that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by ignoring the explicit language of the contract. The District Court agreed. It found:

The Arbitrator here acted outside the scope of his authority by disregarding the plain language of the CBA.
...

This provision clearly and unambiguously limits the arbitrator's authority to determining whether an employee is guilty of the facts constituting any of the four absolute causes. Once the arbitrator makes that determination, the arbitrator's authority ceases and he can no longer fashion a remedy he believes is appropriate given the circumstances. 

Accordingly the Court vacated the award.


Arbitrator altered the charges against  a teacher and then found charge unsupported


  The NJ Supreme Court in Bound Brook Bd of Education v. Ciripompa overturned an award of Arbitrator Michael J. Pecklers in a teacher tenure proceeding. 



 Two counts of tenure charges had been brought against the teacher for unbecoming conduct. The first related to claims that the teacher had used his employer issued laptop to send nude pictures of himself and to solicit similar pictures from women on the internet. Count II alleged that he had engaged in inappropriate conduct towards female staff members and made comments about their dress and physical appearence. The tenure charges were submitted to Arbitrator Pecklers for resolution. Arbitrator Pecklers found that the Board proved the allegations of Count I. With regard to Count II,  he noted that while the Count did not specifically allege sexual harassment, in light of the evidence this was the substance of the allegation. He then considered the evidence in light of the NJ Supreme Court's decision in Lehmann v. Toys 'R' Us, Inc, a case interpreting the NJ Law Against Discrimination, and found that the evidence did not support a finding of a hostile work environment.  In view of his findings regarding Count I and his dismissal of Count II the arbitrator converted the dismissal to a 120 days suspension. 

On the School District's appeal, the case was ultimately appealed to the N.J. Supreme Court.  Describing the issue before it, the Court wrote:

 In this case we determine whether an arbitrator exceeded his authority by applying the standard for proving a hostile-work-environment, sexual-harassment claim in a law against discrimination (LAD) case to a claim of unbecoming conduct in a tenured teacher disciplinary hearing. We find that he did.

The Court determined that the Arbitrator erred in essentially modifying the allegations in Count II from unbecoming conduct to sexual harassment, noting 

Here, the arbitrator erroneously faulted the Board for failing to prove a charge that it did not bring. The arbitrator erred in his reliance on Lehmann because he imposed a different and inappropriate standard of proof on the Board to sustain its unbecoming conduct in the presence of students claim. The arbitrator "imperfectly executed" his power by misinterpreting the intentions of the Board so significantly as to impose a sexual harassment analysis, when such an analysis was wholly ill-suited in this context

The Court ordered the dispute remanded to a different arbitrator to decide the question of whether the teacher committed unbecoming conduct and the appropriate penalty if he did so. 

Arbitrator improperly ordered University to award tenure

The District Court of Appeal in Florida found that an arbitrator erred in ordering Florida Atlantic University to award tenure to a professor. The arbitrator found that the University relied on improper criteria in its decision to deny tenure and ordered the school to follow the established criteria and  grant the professor's application for promotion and tenure. A lower court  found that the arbitrator exceeded his authority in awarding tenure, but ordered the school to provide grievant with an additional year of employment during which she could reapply for tenure. The Court of Appeal in Nash v. Florida Atlantic University found both the arbitrator and the lower court erred.  It held:


...the arbitrator exceeded his authority in directing the University to grant Nash a promotion and tenure. Although the parties stipulated that the arbitrator would determine "the appropriate remedy" for a breach of the CBA, the parties did not expressly place before the arbitrator the issue of whether Nash should have been granted promotion and tenure. Rather, the issue was whether the University had violated the CBA's procedure for determining an application for tenure and promotion. It is clear to us that once the arbitrator found the University violated the procedure by not relying on established criteria, "the appropriate remedy" was for the arbitrator to direct the University to review Nash's application using the correct criteria.


The court also rejected the lower court's order of an additional year of employment, concluding that the lower court should have directed the University to review grievant's application using the correct criteria. 


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