Written by David B. Montgomery
Labor arbitration is a key element of federal labor policy. It is the preferred method of industrial dispute resolution, and courts are reluctant to overturn an arbitrator’s award unless it does not draw its essence from the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). A recent decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Ameren Illinois Co. v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 51, illustrates this point. In that case, the employer terminated a unionized employee for violating its Workplace Violence Policy because the employee (1) argued with his supervisor and (2) brought a firearm to work, which he left in his truck.
The union grieved the employee’s discharge and the matter proceeded to arbitration. The Workplace Violence Policy prohibited threatening or intimidating another employee. The arbitrator determined that the dispute between the employee and his supervisor did not rise to the level of threats or intimidation and this section of the policy could not justify termination.
The Workplace Violence Policy also prohibited “the possession of unauthorized weapons by any employee . . . on Company parking lots.” Acting upon a tip, the employer asked to search the employee’s truck parked on the company lot, the employee consented, and company officials discovered a firearm. Based on these facts, the arbitrator determined that the employee violated the Workplace Violence Policy. However, relying upon the Illinois Concealed Carry Act (“Act”), the arbitrator concluded that the employer was prohibited from enforcing its rule because the Act allowed the employee to carry a concealed weapon, and the employer could only ban weapons on its property by posting a sign that firearms were not allowed on company property, which it did not do. Therefore, the arbitrator overturned the discharge decision.
The collective bargaining agreement stated: “In considering any dispute under this provision, the arbitrator [has] no authority to amend, delete from or add to this agreement.” Based upon this language and a long line of cases prohibiting an arbitrator from going beyond the issue submitted for arbitration (the issue presented to the arbitrator in this case was whether the employer had just cause to discharge the employee), the employer appealed the arbitrator’s decision to district court, alleging that the arbitrator improperly relied upon external law in making his decision, rather limiting his analysis to the terms of the CBA. The district court agreed and vacated the arbitrator’s award.
The Union appealed to the Seventh Circuit. In a detailed analysis of Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit precedent, the Court reinforced the concept that the judiciary should only overturn arbitrators’ awards in limited circumstances. The Court noted a line of cases in which courts overturned arbitrators’ awards because the arbitrator relied upon public laws that conflicted with the CBA to make their awards. However, the Court concluded that an exception exists to this rule against relying upon public law if the CBA contains language that can be construed to incorporate outside laws into the CBA.
The parties’ CBA contained the following language in its preamble: “Any provisions of this Agreement found by either party to be in conflict with State or Federal statutes shall be suspended when such conflict occurs and shall immediately thereafter be reopened for amendment to remove such conflict.” This provision was enough for the Court to conclude that that parties intended to incorporate laws such as the Concealed Carry Act within the scope of the CBA. Thus, the Court concluded that the arbitrator’s award correctly applied the external law to the dispute and enforced the award.
As inclusion of language incorporating outside laws is very common in modern CBAs, Ameren teaches that arbitrators will very often have the authority to rely upon external law in interpreting the CBA. As any dispute between the CBA and external law would eventually need to be resolved, giving to the arbitrator the authority to do so may be cost-beneficial, but it also requires an arbitrator interpret laws with which he/she may be unfamiliar. The bottom line: Employers must be sure that their work rules comply with local, state and federal laws.
This article should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general information purposes only, and the reader is urged to consult a lawyer concerning his/her own situation and any specific legal questions he/she may have.