Fourth Circuit Declines to Vacate Arbitration Award Where Challenge to the Award Was Nothing More Than an Ordinary Disagreement With Its Outcome

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

Tecnocap LLC appealed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, where it declined to vacate an arbitration award in favor of an employee and labor union in a grievance proceeding related to Tecnocap’s termination of an employee covered by the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.

The parties’ collective bargaining agreement prohibited Tecnocap from “summarily discharging” covered employees and required that termination of employment be “for just cause.” The agreement also subjected grievances involving the interpretation of express provisions of the arbitration agreement. Separate from the agreement, Tecnocap instituted an attendance program wherein employees accrued points for certain absences from work and were then subject to different disciplinary procedures based on the number of accrued points.

After a Tecnocap employee accrued nine points in the attendance program and failed to timely submit paperwork that would allocate one of his absences to FMLA leave, Tecnocap terminated his employment. The union then filed a grievance protesting the employee’s termination, which proceeded through arbitration.

The arbitrator determined that the grievance was arbitrable, rejecting Tecnocap’s argument that the grievance was untimely and should be denied or dismissed on procedural grounds, pointing to the parties’ past conduct of inattentiveness to grievance deadlines as evidence of a waiver of such deadlines. The arbitrator also ruled that Tecnocap did not have “just cause” to terminate the employee because it improperly assessed him with a ninth point.

Tecnocap filed an action in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia under section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, to vacate the arbitrator’s award, and the union filed an action under the same provision to enforce the arbitrator’s decision, which it alleged Tecnocap had refused to follow.

The district court found Tecnocap failed to present evidence that would warrant overturning the arbitrator’s award, including any evidence that the award: (i) was the product of the arbitrator’s bias; (ii) ignored the evidence in favor of the arbitrator’s own brand of “industrial justice”; or (iii) altered the language of the collective bargaining agreement.

Tecnocap then appealed, arguing that the district court should have concluded that the arbitrator’s award did not draw its essence from the collective bargaining agreement and therefore should have been vacated. Affirming the district court’s decision, the panel rejected Tecnocap’s challenge, finding that Tecnocap presented nothing more than an ordinary disagreement with the outcome of the arbitration award based on Tecnocap’s preferred application of the collective bargaining agreement to the underlying facts.

The panel determined that the collective bargaining agreement plainly delegated authority to the arbitrator to adjudicate grievances involving the interpretation or application of the express provisions of the agreement and that upon being delegated with that authority, the arbitrator had the authority to review whether Tecnocap fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and whether the termination comported with the agreement’s “just cause” limitation. The panel held that the arbitrator’s decision was a clear exercise in applying the agreement’s provisions and that Tecnocap failed to point to any limitation in the agreement that prevented the arbitrator from making her decision.

Tecnocap, LLC v. United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Industrial & Serv. Workers Int’l Union AFL-CIO/CLC, Local Union No. 152M, No. 19-1263 (4th Cir. Jan. 19, 2021).

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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