Even “Silly” Arbitration Opinions Must Be Upheld

The City of Detroit, Michigan fired Sergeant Edward Forman after Forman was involved in an off-duty incident in which he discharged his firearm. Forman’s labor organization, the Detroit Lieutenants’ and Sergeants’ Association, appealed his discharge to arbitration. An arbitrator awarded Forman’s reinstatement.

The City challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court. When a trial court reversed the Arbitrator’s decision as being against public policy, the Association appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Appeals Court reinstated the Arbitrator’s decision. The Court began with a recitation of the general standards applicable to the appeal of arbitration decisions.

In the eyes of the Court, the review of arbitration decisions is narrowly circumscribed, and “to invite judicial action to vacate an arbitration award, the character or seriousness of a claimed error of law must have been so material or substantial that the award would have been substantially different if not for the error.”

As the Court put it, “it is well established that a court may not review an arbitrator’s factual findings. An arbitrator’s improvident, even silly fact finding does not provide a basis for a review in court to refuse to enforce an award.”

With that backdrop, the Court turned to the City’s argument that the Arbitrator’s decision reversing Forman’s discharge violated “any rational view of the public policy of the State of Michigan.” The City argued that Michigan public policy supported protecting citizens from the reckless discharge of a firearm, and that public policy dictates that police officers meet a minimum standard of moral fitness.

The Court acknowledged that the City’s arguments did “reflect valid, general public policy concerns and take into account considerations of supposed public interest.” Where the Court was unconvinced, however, was on the import of the public policies. As the Court put it, “they do not constitute a positive law prohibiting employment of a police officer who engages in the prohibited behavior. In other words, although the general public consensus might disfavor employing a police officer who is convicted of misdemeanor offenses, there is no well-defined and dominant public policy, as reflected by an express legal provision, against it.”

Since there was no clearly articulated public policy in the area, the Court reasoned that the Arbitrator’s opinion reinstating Forman should be upheld.

City of Detroit v. Detroit Lieutenants’ and Sergeants’ Association, 2005 WL 387647 (Mich.App. 2005).

This article appears in the April 2005 issue