Arbitrator Has Right To Be Wrong

Matthew Carver is a corrections officer with the Suffolk County, Massachusetts Sheriff’s Office. In 2002, Carver suffered a workers’ compensation injury to his right knee.

Subsequently, the Sheriff’s Office began to treat Carver’s absences as “undocumented” under the terms of a “Managing Attendance Policy (MAP)” negotiated between the County and Carver’s labor organization, AFSCME Council 93. Under the MAP, if an employee has too many “undocumented” sick days in a quarter of the calendar year, the employee is subject to progressive discipline, including dismissal.

After concluding that Carver had too many undocumented sick days, the Sheriff imposed progressive suspensions on him, culminating in the termination of his employment. AFSCME challenged the termination in arbitration.

The Arbitrator determined that Carver had in fact submitted medical documentation to the Sheriff explaining his absences, and that his absences were not “undocumented” within the meaning of the MAP. The Arbitrator ordered Carver reinstated with back pay.

The Sheriff then challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court, contending that the Arbitrator gave a “tortured reading” to the MAP and ignored its express language.

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts upheld the Arbitrator’s decision. In so ruling, the Court described the broad deference given to the decision of arbitrators: “In this case, there is no doubt the Arbitrator focused on the correct language in the MAP, but his interpretation of that language, that an employee who lacks sufficient accrued sick leave could avoid being charged with an undocumented sick day by providing appropriate medical documentation, may have been incorrect. In short, the Arbitrator may simply have got it wrong.

“The Sheriff’s argument boils down to a claim that the Arbitrator exceeded his authority by erroneously interpreting the contract provision. If that were the test for vacating an arbitration award, the notion of final and binding arbitration would be drained of any meaning, so that any and all awards would be vulnerable to attack, merely on a complaint by a party who claimed error on the part of an arbitrator in interpreting the particular contract language at hand. The settled rule, however, is that a court has no business overruling an arbitrator because it gives a contract a different interpretation.”

Sheriff of Suffolk County v. AFSCME Council 93, 861 N.E.2d 472 (Mass.App. 2007).

The article appears in our April 2007 issue.