Holistic Arbitrator’s Opinion Upheld By Court

The collective bargaining agreement between the City of Trenton, New Jersey and Local 11 of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) has a clause dealing with short-duration pre- and post-shift work: “It is recognized that employees may be required for the purpose of muster at the commencement of a tour to report in advance of the tour starting time and for the purpose of report making at the end of a tour to remain at the termination of a tour. In accordance with this recognition, no overtime shall be paid for a ten-minute period prior to the commencement of a tour, or for a ten-minute period at the termination of a tour, but in the event an employee is required to report earlier than ten minutes prior to the commencement of a tour or to remain beyond ten minutes after the end of a tour, the employee shall be paid the overtime rate for all time worked in excess of the work day of eight consecutive hours.”

When an arbitrator interpreted the phrase “no overtime shall be paid for a ten-minute period prior to the commencement of a tour” to permit the payment of compensation at straight-time rates for that period, the PBA filed a petition in court seeking to confirm the award. The City opposed the petition, arguing that the Arbitrator exceeded his jurisdiction and essentially rewrote the contract.

The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the City’s challenge. The Court held: “Our courts have vacated arbitration awards as not reasonably debatable when arbitrators have, for example, added new terms to an agreement or ignored its clear language. Although arbitrators may not look beyond the four corners of a contract to alter unambiguous language, where a term is not defined, it may be necessary for an arbitrator to fill in the gap and give meaning to that term. Furthermore, an arbitrator may weave together all those provisions that bear on the relevant question in coming to a final conclusion. When that occurs, even if the arbitrator’s decision appears to conflict with the direct language of one clause of an agreement, so long as the contract, as a whole, supports the Arbitrator’s interpretation, the award will be upheld.
“In reaching his conclusion, the Arbitrator relied on the actual words of the Agreement, wove together its relevant provisions, and read it holistically, without emphasizing isolated provisions. As a result, he derived a plausible conclusion regarding its meaning – that if the parties had intended that the employees receive no pay at all for time actually worked, they would have said so. Because they did not, the Arbitrator concluded that straight-time pay for the muster period was contemplated.

“To be sure, the Arbitrator’s interpretation was not the only one that could have flowed from the Agreement and may not even have been the best one. It did not need to be. All that was required was that the Arbitrator’s conclusions be reasonably debatable. Because they were, we remand the matter to the trial court for confirmation of the award.”

Policemen’s Benevolent Ass’n v. City of Trenton, 2011 WL 1136432 (N.J. 2011).

This article appears in the May 2011 issue.