Fortunately, Sometimes Life is “Unfair”: Town of Greenwich v. Greenwich Municipal Employees Association and Reversal of an Overreaching Arbitration Decision

by Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Lawyers like to believe that arbitration decisions concerning employee discipline should be made in accordance with the law and the applicable collective bargaining agreement, not solely by an arbitrator’s personal notions of fairness.  In a decision issued June 5, 2014, a Superior Court judge reminded us that while arbitration rulings usually are difficult to overturn, arbitrators do not have free reign to ignore contractual limits on their authority.

Town of Greenwich v. Greenwich Municipal Employees Association concerned an accounting clerk in the Town’s Fire Department with a lengthy tenure and generally laudatory reviews.  However, the Fire Department eventually discovered that this once-model employee had sent and responded to 9,600 personal/non-job related e-mails in the previous 18 month period.  In addition to this clear misuse of “company time,” the content of her e-mails included the release of confidential information, admissions of her “snooping” in the office, and multiple demeaning, unprofessional, profane, and/or derogatory comments about her supervisors and fellow employees.  All of this conduct violated the Town’s acceptable computer use policy.  The Town terminated the clerk’s employment.

The clerk’s union grieved the termination.  The issue for the arbitrators was whether the termination violated the collective bargaining agreement [“CBA”], since only CBA violations were grievable.  Here, there was no violation of the CBA, because there was no “just cause” provision in the CBA.  Nonetheless, the majority of the arbitration panel overturned the termination because 1) they felt that the termination was “excessive disciplinary action and unfair” and the employee was not provided with progressive discipline, and 2) the employee was subject to “disparate treatment” in that a fire marshal (who was not in the same union as the clerk) who received some of these e-mails had not yet been disciplined. The arbitrators ordered reinstatement, but without back pay.

The Town filed an application to vacate the arbitration award with the Superior Court.  The Court ruled for the Town and vacated the award.  While courts usually defer to arbitration awards, the award in this case still had to conform to the CBA, and the arbitrators were not free to ignore contractual limits on their authority.  Here, the arbitrators ignored the CBA-imposed limits and based their award on a policy that was not a part of the CBA.  Worse yet, the arbitrators appeared to be determining whether they felt the termination was “justified” or was “fair.”  As such, the Court noted that the arbitrators “strayed a long way” from their charge to determine simply whether  the termination violated the CBA, and thus exceeded their powers. The Court ordered  a rehearing by the arbitrators, who hopefully will adhere to the limits on their authority.  Stay tuned.

WHAT DID WE LEARN AND WHAT CAN WE DO?  This case highlights why it is important to have collective bargaining agreements that 1) restrict grievance arbitrations to alleged CBA violations, and 2) contain language explicitly prohibiting arbitrators from ignoring or amending the CBA.  As an aside, the Court’s decision tacitly reminds us of the danger of having a separate progressive discipline policy in the unionized (or any) workplace.  While the Court properly ruled that the policy here was not incorporated into (and instead was superseded by) the CBA, an employer should not take this risk (especially where there is no “just cause” provision in its CBA).  Finally, the Court’s decision does show that sometimes, it may be worth seeking judicial relief from the occasional far-afield arbitration ruling.


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.

© Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.