Arbitrator Can Find Just Cause For Discharge And Still Order Reinstatement

Warren Ferguson was employed as a dispatcher for Athens County, Ohio. One day in November 2005, Ferguson reported for work while intoxicated, and made several inappropriate and offensive sexual remarks directed to an administrative assistant. The County terminated Ferguson as a result of his conduct.

Ferguson’s labor organization, the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, challenged his termination in arbitration. The Association stressed Ferguson’s good work record and a variety of stress factors in his life, including a chronic back problem, injuries to his wife as a result of a brain stem tumor, and his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The Arbitrator agreed with the County that it had just cause to discharge him, and that progressive discipline was not appropriate. However, the Arbitrator concluded that the mitigating circumstances warranted reducing the penalty from discharge to something less severe. The Arbitrator ordered that Ferguson be placed on sick leave status as of the date of his discharge and on unpaid medical leave status upon exhaustion of his sick leave days. He further found that, upon the presentation of sufficient medical evidence, Ferguson should be reinstated to his former position and would be required to submit to random drug and alcohol testing for a two-year period.

When the County refused to reinstate Ferguson, the Association sought a court order compelling compliance with the Arbitrator’s decision. The Ohio Court of Appeals sided with the Association. The Court “acknowledged the seeming anomaly in a decision that affirms the existence of just cause for discharge but also grants reinstatement,” but found that the County and the Association had granted broad authority to an arbitrator in disciplinary cases. The Court observed that “the contract clearly authorizes the Arbitrator to modify the discipline imposed on Mr. Ferguson and there is no evidence that the parties filed a submission statement directing the Arbitrator to narrowly address only the question of whether the County had just cause to discharge Ferguson. We conclude the terms of the contract provided the Arbitrator with broad authority to modify the discipline imposed in cases of discharge.”

Athens County Commissioners v. Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, 2007 WL 4464626 (OhioApp. 2007).

This article appears in the February 2008 issue