Court Finds Arbitrator Should Resolve Firefighter’s Fitness-For-Duty Discharge

Rod Yoder is a firefighter with the City of Stow, Ohio. Yoder was disciplined for an incident involving unprofessional behavior toward a member of the City’s Parks Department. The Fire Chief told Yoder that he would be placed on involuntary paid leave until he completed a fitness-for-duty evaluation. Yoder’s union, Local 1662 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, filed a grievance on his behalf.

When the City’s psychologist concluded that Yoder was not fit for duty, the Chief placed Yoder on unpaid leave until he could be deemed fit for duty. The first grievance then went to arbitration. When Yoder’s unpaid leave expired without him passing a fitness-for-duty evaluation, the Chief terminated his employment with the Fire Department. Local 1662 filed a second grievance on Yoder’s behalf contesting the termination.

The City refused to arbitrate the second grievance, arguing that a discharge due to unfitness for duty was not subject to the grievance procedure under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. The Ohio Court of Appeals rejected the City’s arguments and sent the termination grievance to arbitration.

The arbitration clause in the contract excludes from arbitration “those terms or provisions, or any part thereof, under the jurisdiction of the Civil Service Rules and Regulations.” The City argued that civil service rules governed questions of fitness for duty, and thus Local 1662’s grievance could not be arbitrated.

The Court noted that while the City’s argument could be correct, “in its grievance, the Union alleged that the City violated a specific provision of the collective bargaining agreement. Both arguments are reasonable, albeit contrary, interpretations of the factual situation and the language of the collective bargaining agreement. Although the City has presented an argument regarding how the contract language indicates that the parties intended to exclude this type of grievance from arbitration, it has not cited any explicit language to that effect. The City’s argument does not rise to the level of express exclusion or other forceful evidence sufficient to carry the City’s burden in this case. Therefore, we must resolve our doubts in favor of coverage. The Union’s grievance challenging Yoder’s termination should have been sent to arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement because the City failed to demonstrate that the exclusionary language of the otherwise standard arbitration provision explicitly excluded this type of grievance.”

Stow Firefighters v. City of Stow, 2011 WL 1197657 (Ohio App. 2011).

This article appears in the May 2011 issue.