Courts Have ‘No Business’ Overturning Arbitrator’s Interpretation Of Contract

The City of Roosevelt Park, Michigan and the Police Officers Labor Council are parties to a collective bargaining agreement. In February 2009, the Council filed grievances regarding the allocation of overtime between full-time and part-time officers. The grievances were denied at the step one (the Chief of Police) and step two (the City Manager) levels of the grievance process. The grievances were then combined, and the Council requested to submit the matter to arbitration (step four), skipping over step three (City Council review). Although this was initially agreeable to the City, the City later took the position that the grievances were not arbitrable. The parties agreed to let an arbitrator determine the arbitrability of the grievances.

The Arbitrator found that the grievances were, in fact, arbitrable and that the overtime grievances could proceed to arbitration, skipping over step three of the grievance process. The City then challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court.
The Michigan Court of Appeals refused to set aside the Arbitrator’s opinion. Looking at the grievance procedure in the contract, the Court observed that “the overtime grievances are not subject to review by the City Council because they do not involve the discharge or suspension for more than 30 days of an employee. The Council takes the position that that means the grievance merely proceeds from Step 2 to Step 4. The City takes the position that because Step 3 cannot take place, Step 4 can never be reached and, therefore, the grievance terminates at Step 2. The Arbitrator agreed with the Council.

“Ultimately, it does not matter whether we agree with the Arbitrator’s interpretation of the contract. As the United States Supreme Court has pointed out, so far as the Arbitrator’s decision concerns construction of the contract, the courts have no business overruling him because their interpretation of the contract is different than his. This Court follows this principle as well.

“In reviewing the arbitration decision, the trial court merely disagreed with the Arbitrator’s interpretation of the agreement. The trial court concluded that the agreement was not ambiguous and agreed with the City’s interpretation of the agreement. But a trial court must give deference to the Arbitrator’s interpretation of a contract, even where the trial court disagrees with the Arbitrator’s interpretation. In failing to do so, the trial court failed to give the appropriate deference. The decision of the Circuit Court is reversed and the matter is remanded with instructions to reinstate the Arbitrator’s decision.”

City of Roosevelt Park v. Police Officers Labor Council, 2011 WL 1816512 (Mich. App. 2011).