‘Statement Of The Issue’ In Arbitration Can Be Significant

Most arbitration hearings begin with the advocates attempting to frame the “statement of the issue” for the Arbitrator. To those without much arbitration experience, the process may seem to be an arcane one. A recent Connecticut case, however, illustrates the significance of the “statement of the issue” process.

The case involved the demotion of Derek Austin, a lieutenant with the State of Connecticut Department of Correction, from the position of lieutenant to corrections officer. Austin’s labor organization, the Service Employees International Union, challenged the demotion in arbitration.

At the outset of the arbitration hearing, the parties stipulated to the issues and agreed that the following submission should be presented to the Arbitrator: “(1) Was the demotion of the grievant for just cause? (2) If not, what shall be the remedy consistent with the collective bargaining agreement?”

After a hearing, the Arbitrator ruled that the demotion of Austin was for just cause, but went on to rule that the demotion “cannot be extended in perpetuity” and that “Austin is to be re-promoted to the rank of lieutenant within 60 days of the receipt of this award.”

The Connecticut Court of Appeals found that the Arbitrator’s award exceeded his jurisdiction. The Court ruled that “the first part of the submission specifically asked the Arbitrator to determine whether the demotion of the grievant was for just cause. The second part asked him to determine the appropriate remedy if he concluded that the demotion was not for just cause. The Arbitrator concluded that the demotion was for just cause and denied the grievance. That should have completed his work.

“The Arbitrator then proceeded, however, to determine that the demotion cannot be extended in perpetuity and that the grievant must be reinstated on certain terms. The conclusion that the demotion cannot be extended in perpetuity addresses the appropriateness of the terms of the demotion, not the cause of it. While technical precision in making a submission is not required and submissions are given a liberal construction in furtherance of the policy of deciding disputes by arbitration, a court will not torture words to import ambiguity where the ordinary meaning leaves no room for ambiguity.

“The Arbitrator was asked by both parties to determine whether the grievant’s demotion was for just cause and, if he found no just cause, to determine the appropriate remedy. The Arbitrator, having found just cause and having denied the grievance, was without authority to address whether the terms of the demotion were appropriate or not.”

State of Connecticut v. Connecticut State Employees Association, 978 A.2d 131 (Conn. 2009).

This article appears in the December 2009 issue