Arbitrator’s Opinion Must Be Upheld If Conclusions Are ‘Reasonably Debatable’

The City of Trenton, New Jersey is party to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 11 of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association. On September 5, 2006, the Police Director issued a memorandum requiring patrol officers to appear ten minutes prior to the beginning of their shift. A similar directive was later issued to detectives. No compensation was paid to the officers or detectives for this ten-minute early muster.

Local 11 challenged the new rules in arbitration. An arbitrator agreed with Local 11, relying on two sections of the collective bargaining agreement in reaching his decision. The Arbitrator found that officers and detectives were entitled to pay, albeit at the straight time rate. The first of the two sections relied upon by the Arbitrator specifically allowed for certain “training” to be conducted on a non-compensated basis. The second of the two clauses called for overtime to be paid if officers were required to remain on duty “more than ten minutes” before or after their regular shifts.

In the Arbitrator’s judgment, “the framers of the agreement were not novices to collective negotiations. They were skilled hands and negotiated intelligently and alertly to reach a comprehensive agreement. If the parties wanted to specifically exclude any and all payments for the ten minutes, they were certainly free to do so. The fact that they did not is not a glaring omission or any type of omission. It simply is that the parties only addressed that overtime would not be paid during that period of time. To that end, when the parties referenced training, they specifically agreed to the amount of training and that there would be no additional compensation.”

The City challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion through the court system. The Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court rejected the challenge.

The Court held that “the standard for reviewing an arbitrator’s decision is a deferential one. We determine only whether the interpretation of the contractual language is reasonably debatable, meaning that the reviewing court may not substitute its own judgment for that of the arbitrator.

“We determine that there is no basis for rejection of the arbitrator’s decision. His interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement was reasonably debatable given the actual text of the collective bargaining agreement and fundamental principle of contract construction, and did not violate any clear mandate of public policy. The arbitrator simply concluded that if the experienced negotiators who arrived at the collective bargaining agreement intended to make the ten-minute muster time non-compensable, they would have said so, as they did with the training clause. His conclusion was corroborated by the fact that overtime compensation for the ten-minute early start was expressly prohibited. Whether or not we agree with this interpretation, it is plausible and reasonably debatable. His award should therefore be upheld.”

Policemen’s Benevolent Association, Local No. 11 v. City of Trenton, 2010 WL 624087 (N.J. Super. A.D. 2010).

This article appears in the April 2010 issue