Federal Court Declines to Vacate Arbitration Award Absent Public Policy Against Requiring Reinstatement of Terminated Employee

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The plaintiff, ITT Engineered Valves LLC, sought to vacate an arbitration award finding it had improperly terminated its employee, Douglas Wood, and ordering that Wood be reinstated. While recognizing the general presumption in favor of enforcing arbitration awards, ITT claimed an exception to that rule applied here: “well-defined and dominant” public policies would be violated if the award were to be enforced. Specifically, it pointed to public policies against (1) racial/national origin harassment and discrimination and (2) threats of workplace violence. Wood’s labor union, the defendant in the action, argued that the so-called public policy exception is exceedingly narrow and did not warrant vacatur. The court agreed with the union.

The court explained that applying the public policy exception requires a two-step analysis. First, can a “well-defined and dominant” public policy be identified? If so, would enforcing the award violate that policy? The court noted that the exception is available only when the award creates an “explicit conflict with an explicit public policy.” Even assuming the public policies identified by ITT were “well-defined and dominant,” the court found enforcing the award would not thwart the purpose of either policy. As an initial matter, the court found ITT failed to demonstrate that any public policies required the discharge of an employee who engaged in discrimination or harassment and/or made threats of violence. The court also accepted the arbitrator’s conclusion that Wood’s conduct was neither discriminatory nor harassing and did not constitute a threat of violence in the first instance. Thus, while sympathizing with ITT’s desire to maintain a safe workplace, the court denied its motion for summary judgment and granted the union’s cross-motion.

ITT Engineered Valves, LLC v. United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. & Serv. Workers Int’l Union, No. 5:21-cv-00205 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 3, 2021).

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