Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Award Requiring Disciplinary Retraining Of Sheriff, Aides

Jan Bartleson became a Yakima County, Washington sheriff’s deputy in 1995. She generally received positive work reviews until January 2001, when she received a three-day suspension for an on-duty automobile accident. The Yakima County Law Enforcement Officers Guild filed a grievance and the suspension was reduced to one day. Thereafter, Bartleson’s relationship with Sheriff Ken Irwin began to deteriorate. Bartleson exhausted her paid leave due to a combination of personal injuries, a pregnancy, and family care. Irwin and Bartleson’s co-workers were unhappy with the amount of time she was away from her job, although none of her leave was unauthorized.

In October 2002, Bartleson requested extended unpaid medical leave as allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. Irwin denied her request. When she filed a gender and disability discrimination claim with the Washington State Human Rights Commission, Irwin eventually approved the leave.

Bartleson had alleged in her discrimination complaint that she suffered from attention deficit disorder. Irwin required her to undergo a “fit for duty” psychological evaluation. The psychiatrist who treated her informed the Sheriff that people with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) can perform effectively at their jobs with treatment, and Bartleson returned to duty.

In February 2003, Bartleson’s child was accused of misconduct at school. Bartleson had some discussions with school officials and parents. School officials and members of the community complained to the Sheriff about her. The Sheriff placed her on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. Irwin required her to undergo a second “fit for duty” evaluation with a different psychiatrist of the Sheriff’s choosing.

Irwin sent the new doctor a letter referencing both AD/HD and her recent job performance problems, and a packet that contained write-ups of six incidents of alleged improper conduct going back to 1998. All were investigated and found to be without basis except for one in which Bartleson acted discourteously but was not disciplined. The second doctor concluded that Bartleson was unfit for duty but not due to AD/HD.

Bartleson again requested unpaid medical leave on March 20, 2003. Irwin granted her unpaid medical leave from April 14 to July 14, 2003, but notified her she would be discharged from employment on July 15, 2003. In a discharge letter dated July 16, 2003, Irwin informed Bartleson that she was terminated for cause because she was not able to perform the duties of a deputy sheriff. The letter labeled the termination non-voluntary and non-disciplinary.

The Guild challenged the termination in arbitration. When the County refused to arbitrate the grievance, the Guild sued, eventually winning an order from the Washington Court of Appeals compelling arbitration. After a hearing, an arbitrator concluded that Irwin violated the collective bargaining agreement because he violated just cause requirements and did not conduct the required pre-discharge hearing. The Arbitrator found that “the treatment of Bartleson in this situation demonstrates a complete and utter failure on the part of the County to apply the basic principles of fairness that form the basis for the just cause standard and are at the core of industrial justice.”

The Arbitrator ordered Bartleson reinstated with back pay and benefits, on condition that she participate in an employee assistance plan. The Arbitrator also ordered that the Sheriff and three of his supervisors take training on methods of conducting internal investigations and counseling to improve interaction and relationships with Bartleson and other employees who experience personal crisis or tragedy.

The County challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court. Among the many issues raised by the County was the argument that the Arbitrator had no authority to require that Irwin and his supervisors be retrained.

The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the Arbitrator’s award. Speaking to the retraining issue, the Court found: “Washington law is well-settled that arbitrators have the authority to fashion a remedy necessary to the resolution of the dispute, including remedies not specifically requested in the grievance. The Arbitrator is given a wide latitude in fashioning an appropriate remedy and if the Arbitrator’s power is limited to adjudicating the breach, then parties will be forced into court to seek complete relief. The Arbitrator must fashion a remedy appropriate to the seriousness of the contractual violation and circumstances, limited only by the Arbitrator’s creativity subject to the bounds of the law and the negotiated contract.

“The Arbitrator did not exceed his authority under the CBA in fashioning a remedy that included training and counseling. We cannot further review the merits of this remedy.”

Yakima County v. Yakima County Law Enforcement Officers Guild, 2010 WL 3035128 (Wash. App. Div. 3 2010).

This article appears in the October 2010 issue