Court Upholds Arbitration Panel’s Decision On Fire Staffing

The City of New Britain, Connecticut and the New Britain Firefighters Association, Local 922 of the IAFF are parties to a collective bargaining agreement. Section 5.4 of the CBA contains a minimum staffing clause. Believing the City had violated the clause, Local 922 submitted a grievance to arbitration.

At the outset of the arbitration hearing, the City and Local 922 agreed to a broad “statement of the issue,” which read as follows: “Did the City violate Section 5.4 and any other relevant provision of the Collective Bargaining Agreement? If so, what shall the remedy be?” When an arbitration panel ruled that the City had violated Section 5.4 and ordered the City “to staff its Fire Department with 139 firefighters,” the City challenged the Panel’s decision in court.

A trial court rejected the City’s arguments and upheld the Panel’s decision. The City first argued that the Panel exceeded its authority in ordering the staffing remedy. The problem with this argument, the Court found, was the broad submission agreement entered into before arbitration: “In deciding the issue of whether an arbitrator has exceeded his power, the Court needs only to examine the submission and the award to determine whether the award conforms to the submission. Merely claiming an inconsistency between the agreement and the award will not trigger judicial examination of the merits of the arbitration award. Rather, in the face of such a claimed inconsistency, the Court will review the award only to determine whether it ‘draws its essence’ from the collective bargaining agreement.

“Here, the City seeks to vacate the award on the grounds that the arbitration Panel exceeded its authority and violated public policy. As to the first ground, it is undisputed that the submission in this matter was unrestricted. Therefore, the Panel was empowered to decide factual and legal questions and the award cannot be vacated on the grounds that the construction placed upon the facts or the interpretation of the CBA by the Panel was erroneous.”

The City next argued that the Panel’s decision should be overturned because it “ignored the agreements of the parties which mandated automatic reductions to the minimum manning.” The Court rejected the argument, noting that the City was “in effect asking the Court to vacate the award based upon the Panel’s erroneous construction of the facts and interpretation of the CBA. The arbitration submission asked the Board to determine whether the City violated Section 5.4 and any other relevant provision of the CBA by allowing the fire department to fall below minimum staffing, and that is what the panel concluded in its determination of the facts and interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement. While the Panel acknowledged that Section 5.4 contains confusing language, the Panel also noted that ‘the language states that the minimum could not fall below 139 and is why the Union filed the grievance when the numbers fell to 131.’

“Where there is an unrestricted submission to arbitration, the court may not substitute its interpretation of the CBA even if it might disagree with the arbitrator’s interpretation. In this case, as the Panel properly discharged its office and issued an award which conforms to the unrestricted submission, the award cannot be disturbed by the Court.”

The City next argued that the Panel’s decision violated public policy “because the award allows the Union to repudiate agreements the parties had made regarding the minimum staffing of the fire department in violation of a duty to bargain collectively and in good faith.” The Court disagreed, finding that “the public policy exception to arbitral authority should be narrowly construed and a court’s refusal to enforce an arbitrator’s award is limited to situations where the award would violate some explicit public policy that is well defined and dominant, and is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interests.

“The apparent gravamen of the City’s claim is that the parties have a duty to bargain collectively and in good faith, that the Union’s arguments regarding minimum staffing requirements were made in bad faith, and therefore the award finding in favor of the Union violates public policy. The Court is mindful that arbitrators’ fact determinations are entitled to deference, even when their award is challenged on public policy grounds. Moreover, our appellate courts have routinely declined to review claims that have been asserted in the statement of issues but thereafter receive only cursory attention in the brief without substantive discussion or citation of authorities. As the City did not adequately address the public policy ground for vacating the award in its brief, the Court considers this ground to have been abandoned.”

City of New Britain v. New Britain Firefighters Local 992, IAFF, 2015 WL 671561 (Conn. Super. 2015).