Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Ruling Requiring State To Provide Defense To Trooper In Civil Action

Joseph Vazquez is a trooper with the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP). In January 2003, while on his lunch break at the State Police barracks, Vazquez placed a custodial worker in a headlock and pointed his loaded service weapon at the worker’s head. By all accounts, Vazquez and the custodial worker routinely engaged in horseplay at the police barracks and were doing so on this occasion.

Nevertheless, the custodial worker filed a civil rights action against Vazquez, who requested the PSP to provide counsel pursuant to Article 27 of the collective bargaining agreement between the State and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association. Article 27 requires that “if a member is a defendant in a civil suit arising from the performance of his/her duties, the Commonwealth shall immediately furnish counsel and defend the member.”

The State denied Vazquez’s request for counsel, indicating his conduct was malicious and intentional and did not occur during the performance of his duties. Vazquez obtained private counsel to defend the civil rights action and also filed a grievance protesting the decision not to represent him.

While the grievance was pending, the civil matter proceeded to trial, and Vazquez was found liable on all counts. The Court awarded the custodial worker compensatory and punitive damages as well as counsel fees. Vazquez incurred significant fees of his own for representation by private counsel.

Before the grievance arbitrator, the State claimed Vazquez intentionally admitted in the civil case he “acted under color of state law” so that the State would be responsible for his counsel fees pursuant to Article 27. However, the Arbitrator rejected this claim based on private counsel’s credible testimony that the custodial worker established Vazquez acted under color of law at the time of the incident, and counsel could not overcome the custodial worker’s proof.

The Arbitrator further noted that historically, the phrase “arising from the performance of his/her duties” was broadly interpreted. Here, Vazquez was on his lunch break at the police barracks and used his service weapon in the incident. As such, the Arbitrator stated it would be unreasonable to divide the workday into isolated incidents to determine when an employee was in the performance of his duties and when he was not.

The State then appealed the Arbitrator’s decision, arguing that the decision violated public policy. An appeals court denied the appeal, and upheld the Arbitrator’s opinion.

The Court’s decision turned on the finality given to arbitration decisions under Pennsylvania law. As the Court described it, “for a grievance arbitrator to exceed his or her authority, the arbitrator would have to either mandate an illegal act or grant an award that addresses issues beyond the scope of the contract or that extends beyond the terms and conditions of the employment. Given our limited review, we may not question the reasonableness of an arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract.”

The State argued that the Arbitrator exceeded his jurisdiction because it “could never have intended to include an illegal act, such as that committed by Vazquez, in the definition of acts ‘arising from the performance of duties,’ as that phrase is used in Article 27.” Rejecting this argument, the Court concluded that “the problem with this contention, as the Arbitrator recognized, lies with the contract’s language. Nearly every conceivable act, no matter how outrageous and offensive to society, may fall within the broad interpretation of ‘arising from the performance of his/her duties’ so long as it occurs while a member is on duty or is in furtherance of his/her job. Where the offensive conduct can arguably be connected to work activities, the PSP is required to provide counsel.”

Pennsylvania State Police v. Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, 2006 WL 1788423 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2006).

This article appears in the August 2006 issue