Arbitration And Civil Rights Litigation

Kyle Bermingham was an officer with the City of Clermont, Florida Police Department. Bermingham was terminated after he complained to the City and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the Police Chief’s allegedly unlawful police practices. Bermingham filed a grievance with the City, alleging that his termination violated the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

After the City Manager upheld the termination on initial review, Bermingham brought his grievance to arbitration. Ultimately, the Arbitrator determined that the City had just cause to terminate Bermingham and that none of his rights under the agreement had been violated.

Bermingham next brought a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the City fired him in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. Immediately, the City raised the defense that the propriety of Bermingham’s termination had been litigated in the arbitration hearing, and that the arbitration results should bind Bermingham. In response, Bermingham filed a motion to exclude from trial all references and documents related to the arbitration proceedings.

The Court rejected the City’s argument that the arbitration decision should be binding. The Court saw a crucial difference between labor arbitration and civil rights litigation: “Arbitrators have special expertise in the ‘law of the shop’ – that is, ‘knowledge and judgment concerning the demands and norms of industrial relations’ – and courts ordinarily defer to arbitral decisions. However, an employee’s rights pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement are separate and distinct from rights granted by statute. Where an employee seeks to vindicate a right granted by statute, such as the §1983 claim here, the right involves the ‘law of the land,’ and arbitrators are awarded no special deference. Accordingly, this Court need not give any special weight to the City’s proffered arbitration documents in this §1983 action.”

The Court then turned to Bermingham’s arguments that the arbitration proceedings should be off limits during the federal trial. The Court agreed, holding: “Here, the questions posed before the Arbitrator were whether disciplinary decisions – including the termination decision – violated Bermingham’s rights under the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the City, not whether they violated his First Amendment rights. Thus, the Arbitrator’s ultimate conclusions have no bearing on Bermingham’s constitutional claim and should be excluded as irrelevant.

“Moreover, even if the arbitration documents were marginally relevant, their probative value would be substantially outweighed by their considerable danger of confusing the issues and unfairly prejudicing Bermingham. The Arbitrator’s conclusion that Bermingham’s activities gave his employer ‘just cause’ to terminate him veers impermissibly close to an ‘expert’ determination that the City fired Bermingham for reasons unrelated to protected speech.”

Bermingham v. City of Clermont, Florida, 2013 WL 5970700 (M.D. Fla. 2013).