Arbitrator’s Opinion On Range Qualification ‘Passably Plausible’

The Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers represents corrections officers employed by the State of Rhode Island. The Brotherhood’s collective bargaining agreement contains a clause, known as Section 31.1, which requires the State to “offer a minimum of forty (40) hours per year of training to all uniformed Correctional Officers.” Section 31.2 of the CBA creates a training committee. Composed of two representatives of the DOC and two representatives of the union, it is charged with “submitting a comprehensive program pertinent to the training of Correctional Officers.”

Another key provision of the CBA relates to weapons qualification. Section 31.3 states that “employees who are required to engage in a weapons qualification shall do so on state time.” Furthermore, it provides that “the time frame for qualifying shall be one (1) year from the date of the officer’s last qualification.” A Rhode Island state statute requires law enforcement officers to “repeat this [firearms] qualification at periods of not more than one year,” but also provides that “correctional officers must repeat weapons qualification every two (2) years.” The Department of Corrections announced its intention to conduct live, on-range weapons qualification every two years, instead of annually, as it had done in the past. For the years in which it would not conduct live weapons training, the DOC purchased a computer system, known as Prism, for simulated weapons training. It then sought the training committee’s approval to implement this system.

When the union members of the training committee heard of the plans to eliminate annual range qualification, they opposed the change. The issue then proceeded to arbitration, where an arbitrator upheld the union’s position that the contract required annual range qualification. The State challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion in the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The Court upheld the Arbitrator’s opinion. Citing the general deference given to arbitration opinions, the Court pointed to the Arbitrator’s rejection of the State’s argument that the state statute “prohibited it from complying with the CBA’s requirement of annual weapons qualification. He determined that this statute did not directly conflict with that provision of the CBA, explaining that he read this statute ‘to create an exception to the required annual weapons qualification for other kinds of law enforcement officers.’ He found that, although the DOC was no longer statutorily obligated to have correctional officers complete weapons qualification on an annual basis, it was not statutorily precluded from doing so.

“A close examination of the state statute demonstrates that the Arbitrator’s decision was passably plausible. That statute provides that law enforcement officers must repeat weapons qualification at periods of not more than one year, except for correctional officers who must repeat this qualification every two (2) years. The Arbitrator read that statute to mean that correctional officers were required to undergo weapons qualification at least every two years. He found that the statute prescribed a maximum time period, rather than a minimum or fixed time period, within which correctional officers must complete weapons qualification. Such an interpretation was passably plausible.

“We emphasize that, in reviewing the arbitration award, we do not engage in our usual de novo review of statutes and contracts. Rather, precedent dictates that our task is merely to decide whether his interpretation of the CBA was passably plausible and did not manifestly disregard the law. Given the limited scope of our review of arbitration awards, we cannot disturb the Arbitrator’s determination that the DOC could not modify the weapons qualification component of the training program without the training committee’s approval and that it was not statutorily precluded from fulfilling its contractual obligation to conduct annual weapons qualification.”

State, Dept. of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 64 A.3d 734 (R.I. 2013).

Note: Rhode Island courts have been more amenable to overturning arbitration decisions than the courts in other states. Most courts would not have applied a “passably plausible” standard to reviewing the merits of the Arbitrator’s decision; rather, they would have assumed that the parties bargained to have the Arbitrator decide the merits of the case, and would not have analyzed the merits of the issue at all.