Arbitrator, Not Court, Should Decide What ‘Mutual Agreement’ Means

The collective bargaining agreement covering detention officers working for the Woodbury County, Iowa Sheriff’s Department contains a clause allowing the use of compensatory time off in lieu of cash compensation for overtime. Under the contract, the County was authorized to grant compensatory time off in lieu of overtime pay “upon mutual agreement between an employee and the Sheriff.”

For budgetary and scheduling reasons, the Woodbury County Sheriff elected to discontinue the practice of awarding compensatory time pursuant to this contract language. The Detention Officers’ Association responded by filing a grievance and request for arbitration as provided for in the contract. The County refused to arbitrate the grievance, claiming the contract gave it the unilateral right to withhold its agreement to use compensatory time off, and filed a petition in court seeking a declaratory judgment that the grievance was not arbitrable.

The Iowa Court of Appeals held that an arbitrator, not the courts, should decide what “mutual agreement” meant. The Court found that “the contract provides that disputes concerning the interpretation, application, or violation of the contract terms are subject to arbitration. The Association alleged a violation of the contract provisions relating to compensatory time. Those provisions contain the term ‘mutual agreement.’

“The County argues that the plain meaning of the term requires agreement that the employee can use compensatory time in lieu of overtime. The Association contends the term concerns the scheduling of the compensatory time off, not the existence of the right to accumulate compensatory time itself. Under these facts, it is for the arbitrator to interpret the relevant provisions of the agreement and determine the merits of the dispute.”

Woodbury County v. Trobaugh, 2010 WL 1877700 (Iowa App. 2010).

This article appears in the October 2010 issue