Arbitrator Can Convert Termination To Resignation Without Employee’s Consent

In July 2011, Sergeant Michael Matala was terminated from his employment with the Trenton, Ohio Police Department stemming from six alleged violations of the Department’s Code of Conduct. The events leading to Matala’s termination began on May 16, 2010, when Matala issued a traffic citation to Melissa Green for running a red light. Matala later learned that the traffic citation had been “voided” by Lieutenant Michael Gillen. Matala sent a sarcastic email to Gillen complaining about Gillen’s actions and also complained about the incident to Police Chief Timothy Traud.

Matala and Traud then met with the Trenton safety director and City Manager John Jones. Jones stated that he believed this situation was an internal matter and that Traud should schedule a meeting between Jones, Traud, Gillen, and Matala so that the situation could be resolved. According to Jones and Traud, Matala was instructed to take no further action until that meeting took place.

Nevertheless, Matala went to the home of Melissa Green to reissue the traffic citation and, at this time, spoke with Green’s husband, Matthew Green. Matala informed Matthew Green that Gillen’s conduct in voiding the ticket was unlawful and that Gillen might face criminal charges. Matala then reissued the citation to Melissa Green, noting in his supplemental report, “Lieutenant Gillen improperly voided the traffic citation to show Melissa’s husband ‘a little love’ due to the fact that he’s an Oxford Fireman.” Ultimately, Green was convicted on the citation after a bench trial.

Around this same time period, Matala began an investigation into Gillen’s possession of a vehicle that had previously been located in the City’s impound lot. Matala used a law enforcement database to investigate whether Gillen took possession of the impounded vehicle. Based upon Gillen’s conduct involving the traffic citation and the impounded vehicle, Matala met with a Butler County prosecutor. During the meeting, Matala was on duty but notified dispatch as to where he was going and remained in radio contact during the entire time.

When the Department fired Matala for his conduct, the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association challenged the discharge in arbitration. An arbitrator found that Matala’s conduct of reissuing the traffic citation to Melissa Green was “insubordinate and warranted disciplinary action” and that his conversation with Matthew Green warranted “some significant disciplinary action.” On the remaining charges, the Arbitrator did not find Matala’s conduct to warrant discipline.

After further stating that Matala’s conduct, as well as the conduct of Gillen and Traud, created such distrust among the three commanding officers of a small department, the Arbitrator reduced the termination to a 30-day unpaid suspension but ordered that “Matala shall not be reinstated to employment. Matala is awarded back pay from August 20, 2011 to the date of this Award together with benefits and any out of pocket loss as a result of the termination of benefits from the date of his termination to the date of this Award. The termination shall be removed from his personnel file and he will be considered to have resigned from employment effective on the date of this Award.”

The Association challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court, arguing that when the Arbitrator found that there was no just cause for Matala’s discharge, she had no power to convert the termination to a resignation. The Ohio Court of Appeals rejected the Association’s arguments, and upheld the Arbitrator’s decision.

The Court’s decision was based on the traditional deference courts show arbitration decisions: “Because arbitration is championed, the courts have limited authority to review an arbitration award. An arbitrator’s award draws its essence from the collective-bargaining agreement when there is a rational nexus between the agreement and the award. An arbitrator’s award departs from the essence of a collective bargaining agreement when: (1) The award conflicts with the express terms of the agreement and/or (2) the award is without rational support or cannot be rationally derived from the terms of the agreement.

“After finding a violation of a collective bargaining agreement, an arbitrator is presumed to possess implicit remedial power, unless the agreement contains restrictive language withdrawing a particular remedy from the jurisdiction of the Arbitrator. From our review of the record, we find that the Arbitrator’s decision does draw its essence from the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This result best provides for the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s overall principle that the punishment fit the crime. Based upon their ordinary meanings and their use in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the terms dismissal and discharge include the removal of an employee from employment.

“Because the Arbitrator found that Matala’s conduct constituted insubordination, and the CBA lists insubordination as an example of just cause warranting the discharge of an employee, the Arbitrator’s holding that Matala should resign is within the essence of the Collective Bargaining Agreement which permits the removal of an employee from employment.”

Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association v. City of Trenton, 2013 WL 3947761 (Ohio App. 2013).