Use Of Phrase “Probationary Period” In Contract Implies Employer Need Not Have Just Cause For Discipline

Michael Buesing was laterally hired as a police officer by the Sumner, Washington Police Department. Eleven months later, the Department informed Buesing that he had not successfully completed his probationary period and would be terminated. The Department told Buesing he had not developed the necessary judgment and decision-making skills expected of an SPD officer.

Buesing brought a lawsuit against the City, alleging that his treatment as an “at-will” employee was inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement between the City and the Sumner Police Guild.

The Washington Court of Appeals found otherwise, and upheld Buesing’s dismissal. While the contract did not explicitly state that an exception from the “just cause” disciplinary provisions existed for probationary employees, the Court pointed to language in the contract mandating that “all lateral hire employees shall serve a probationary period of 12 months and shall have no seniority rights during this period.” The Court found that Buesing’s interpretation of the language implying that there must be just cause for discipline “would render meaningless the contract’s requirement that lateral hire employees serve a 12-month probationary period.” The Court also noted that the grievance procedure in the collective bargaining agreement provided that the Guild could not file a grievance for employees released during their probationary periods, a clause the Court described as suggesting that “a probationary employee can be released without cause.”

Buesing v. City of Sumner, 2006 WL 1745047 (Wash.App. 2006).

This article appears in the August 2006 issue