How Much Authority Does an Arbitrator Have Over Dismissal of an At-Will Public Employee?

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We begin our previews of the civil cases on the Illinois Supreme Court's November term oral argument docket with Griggsville-Perry Community Unit School District No. 4. v. Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board [pdf]. Our first look at Griggsville-Perry, just after review was granted, is here.

Griggsville-Perry arose from the Board's firing of a noncertified paraprofessional who worked in an elementary school library. In 2007, her school principal approached the employee and told her that the school board had received complaints about her performance. The principal began keeping a notebook of events relating to the employee's performance. The following year -- after a number of incidents involving the employee in 2007 -- the principal recommended that the school board fire the employee. The superintendent of the district notified the employee that she would be fired at an upcoming meeting. The superintendent and principal met with the employee and her union representative twice, and items from her file were produced to her. The employee and her union representative appeared before the school board and the employee testified, but the board decided to fire her.

The union filed a grievance, and after a hearing, the arbitrator ordered the employee reinstated. When the board refused, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge. The arbitrator once again ordered reinstatement, and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board affirmed.

The Appellate Court reversed. The Court noted that the underlying labor agreement said nothing about personnel begin subject to termination only for just, good or proper cause. Although the contract provided for arbitration, it also stated that the arbitrator could not modify, nullify, ignore or add to the provisions of the agreement. Finally, the agreement included an integration clause. In view of these provisions, the Court criticized the arbitrator's insistence that the Board provide "a statement of the specific acts or omissions -- time, place, participants, and utterances -- that it alleges justify her discharge." The arbitrator "has applied his own brand of industrial justice," the Court found, "by reading a just-cause standard into the agreement."

The Court noted the arbitrator's claim that he was free to interpret the contract by applying "industrial common law," but found that the arbitrator's decision had no support in either past practice of the parties or the interpretation of similar contract language in other cases. The arbitrator's decision that the procedure given the employee was somehow deficient was "clearly erroneous," the Court found: she was given repeated warnings, attempts were made to help her, she was given reasonable prior written notice of the reasons for her dismissal, and she was allowed to testify at the hearing.

Before the Supreme Court, amicus the Illinois Association of School Boards and Illinois Association of School Administrators were equally critical of the arbitrator, arguing that he had conjured a requirement for a "full and fair hearing" out of nothing more than a contractual provision that an employee should be given notice if he or she is required to appear.   "If there ever were a decision that smelled like a five-week old unrefrigerated dead fish," amicus wrote, "it is this arbitrator's decision."

Griggsville-Perry will be argued during the 9:00 a.m. session of the Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday, November 15.

 

Published In: Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Updates, Civil Procedure Updates, General Business Updates, Labor & Employment Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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