Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Reinstatement Of Officer Who Served Alcohol To Minor

Brandon Bullock is a police officer with Hamburg Township, Michigan. Bullock served alcohol to a minor in his home, and that minor was subsequently involved in a motorcycle accident in which the minor and his passenger sustained an injury. The minor called Bullock, who retrieved the motorcycle and passengers and brought them home. Neither the police nor the paramedics were contacted.

When Bullock’s involvement in the accident was discovered, the Township terminated him. Bullock’s labor organization, the Michigan Association of Police, challenged the termination in arbitration. The Arbitrator concluded that there was no just cause to terminate Bullock, and converted the discipline to a suspension.

The Township then challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion in court, alleging that the Arbitrator lacked the authority to reverse Bullock’s termination once the Arbitrator concluded that Bullock committed misconduct. The Michigan Court of Appeals turned back the Township’s appeal.

The Court noted that it had very limited authority to review an arbitrator’s decision. Citing from an earlier case, the Court found that an arbitrator is free under a collective bargaining agreement to conclude that misconduct serves as just cause for discipline, yet at the same time does not amount to just cause for discharge. The Court noted that “the Arbitrator was also empowered to fashion an appropriate level of discipline for the violations found.”

The Township pointed to the fact that the Arbitrator commented that Bullock “did a number of acts for which he could have been terminated.” The Township argued that this observation necessarily meant that the Arbitrator concluded that there was just cause for Bullock’s termination.

The Court demurred, observing that “when that statement is viewed in context, it is clear that the Arbitrator was stating that Bullock had violated the rules of conduct for his employment and that a violation of those rules warrant discipline, which may include termination if there is just cause. However, the Arbitrator ultimately concluded that no just cause for termination existed. A determination that there is just cause for termination is different from a determination that there were violations of the rules of conduct. The former makes the employer’s decision to discharge non-modifiable, while the latter gives the Arbitrator the discretion to determine whether just cause for termination exists.”

Hamburg Township v. Michigan Association of Police, 2006 WL 355157 (Mich.App. 2006).

NOTE: The Hamburg Township case illustrates how difficult it is in most states for either an employer or a labor organization to overturn an arbitrator’s decision. The clear view emerging in the courts is that if the parties agree on binding arbitration as the method of dispute resolution under a collective bargaining agreement, they are bound by the results in arbitration even if a court would have reached a different decision.

This article appears in the April 2006 issue