Monday, June 26, 2017

Politics, police, progressive discipline and just cause

Two officers of the DeFuniak Springs Police department, Officer Richard Boblitt and Sergeant Anthony Kaiser, claimed they were dismissed in retaliation for having supported the Department  Chief's opponent in a municipal election.

The two had been employed by the Department for 17 and 4 years respectively. Both were instrumental in bringing the PBA into the Department in 2010.

The Chief was up for reelection in April 2015. On March 25, 2015 the PBA endorsed the Chief's opponent. On April 2, 2015 several Department employees published a letter in a local newspaper questioning the PBA's endorsement of the Chief's opponent. Also on that date one of the officers who signed the letter filed a complaint against Boblitt and Kaiser alleging racial harassment. An Internal Affairs investigation was initiated on April 8, and the two were notified of the investigation on April 13. The election was held on April 14, and the incumbent Chief prevailed.

On June 2, 2015 the Department notified Boblitt and Kaiser that their employment was being terminated, Boblitt for allegedly having racially harassed the complaining officer and Kaiser for failing to take corrective action. Both grieved their termination and the dispute was submitted to arbitrator Jeanne Charles Wood for resolution.

Largely based on her credibility resolutions and her evaluation of the evidence against the grievants, Arbitrator Wood found the termination of the two not supported by just cause. Regarding the Union's claim that that the terminations were part of a "conspiracy" relating to the reelection of the Chief, and the City's claim that the terminations were compelled by its obligations under Title VII, the Arbitrator noted:

So, the question remains: Why would [the complaining officer] file the complaint when he did? The Union contends that it was part of a conspiracy relating to the election of Chief Weeks whose opponent was supported by the Union. I make no findings regarding this theory. It is, however, concluded that based on the totality of the circumstances present here, Boblitt's comments were not so severe or pervasive too alter the terms and conditions of [the complaining officer's] employment. That being the case, the City has failed to prove that Boblitt engaged in unlawful racial harassment in violation of Title VII. It follows then that Kaiser, was not negligent in failing to report or take corrective action in connection with racially discriminatory harassment in violation of Title VII.

Arbitrator Woods did find, however, that certain conduct of the grievants was contrary to Department policy, even if not severe enough to constitute unlawful harassment. Observing that police officers are held to a higher standard than other employees, and that "use of potentially racially offensive language and clearly inappropriate name calling in reference to a co-worker's national origin is serious enough to warrant a suspension." Reducing the terminations to five day suspensions, Arbitrator Wood noted:

Progressive discipline is an element of the just cause doctrine. The rationale for using a progressive discipline system is that both the employer and the employee "benefit when an employee can be rehabilitated and retained as a productive member of the work force. ..." [footnote omitted]

Finding no evidence that grievants' conduct could not be corrected by discipline less than termination, and also finding some evidence of disparate treatment, Arbitrator Wood ordered that grievants be reinstated subject to the five day suspensions.

Arbitrator Wood's award can be found here.

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