Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Opinion Reversing Administrative Suspension Without Pay Pending Investigation

Christopher Winesburg is a trooper employed by the Pennsylvania State Police. During the weekend of March 1, 2008, Winesburg was involved in an incident with a woman after both left a nightclub in Ocean City, Maryland. Ocean City police were called to the scene, but they did not file criminal charges against Winesburg.

Twelve days later, however, the woman filed a private complaint against Winesburg, and he was charged with second-degree assault under the Maryland Criminal Code. The penalty associated with conviction on that offense is equivalent to the penalty for a felony of the second degree in Pennsylvania.

Under Pennsylvania’s Confidence In Law Enforcement Act, “a law enforcement officer charged with an offense that would prohibit employment shall immediately be suspended from employment until final disposition of the charge.” The Department, citing the Act, suspended Winesburg without pay pending the outcome of the criminal charge.

On May 5, 2008, the criminal charge against Winesburg was dismissed, and the Department rescinded his administrative suspension. The Pennsylvania State Troopers’ Association filed a grievance challenging the suspension. When an arbitrator ruled in the Association’s favor, the State challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion in court.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court turned away the State’s challenge. The State argued that under the Act, it was required to suspend Winesburg pending the investigation. The Court saw the matter differently, reasoning that “the Arbitrator never questioned, and in fact, confirmed, the propriety of the suspension under the statute. Instead, in an effort to confine himself to the subjects covered by the collective bargaining agreement, the Arbitrator framed the issue for determination as whether the State could continue to withhold pay from Winesburg from the time that he was suspended. Contrary to the State’s contention, we need not determine whether the Arbitrator could direct the State to rescind the suspension imposed under the Act; rather, we must determine only whether the award directing the State to reimburse Winesburg for the 17-day denial of pay amounted to the ordering of an illegal action under the Act.

“We reject the State’s claim that the Arbitrator’s award mandates the State to violate the Act. Although the statute requires the State to suspend from employment any law enforcement officer charged with a qualifying criminal offense, we disagree with the State that the Act unambiguously mandates that the suspension be without pay. The ‘without pay’ portion of the suspension is a disciplinary measure derived from the collective bargaining agreement. The Act does not prohibit the State from reimbursing a law enforcement officer for wages lost during suspension after criminal charges are dropped, whereas the collective bargaining agreement suggests that this result would be appropriate. Therefore, the Arbitrator has not exceeded his powers.”

Pennsylvania State Police v. Pennsylvania State Troopers’ Ass’n, 2010 WL 1443544 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010).

This article appears in the June 2010 issue