Arbitration Not So Binding In Rhode Island

With few exceptions, when a collective bargaining agreement says that an arbitrator’s decision is final and binding, courts will say just that and uphold an arbitrator’s decision even if they thoroughly disagree with the result. But one state – Rhode Island – treats arbitrations, or at least disciplinary arbitrations in law enforcement agencies, completely differently. For Rhode Island courts, those arbitrations are much more like advisory opinions, not binding on the employer and certainly not binding on the courts.

A recent case arising out of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections is an excellent example of this tendency. The case involved corrections officer James Maddalena, who was spotted smoking marijuana in a department vehicle while on duty. When Maddalena was initially confronted, he lied about what he had done, but later in the same interview told the truth.

When the Department fired Maddalena, the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers challenged the termination in arbitration. Citing the Department’s practice of not terminating officers for similar offenses, an arbitrator converted the discharge to a 60-day unpaid suspension. The Department then challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion in court.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court overturned the Arbitrator’s opinion and upheld Maddalena’s discharge. The Court stated that “after a thorough review of the record, we are of the opinion that the Arbitrator substituted his judgment as to the appropriate disciplinary action for that of the director of the DOC. The Arbitrator’s conclusion, therefore, is inconsistent with a state statute, which outlines the powers of the director ‘in light of the director’s non-delegable authority to maintain security, safety, and order at all state correctional facilities.’

“This Court has stated that the authority of an arbitrator is not unbridled and an arbitrator has a duty to resolve a dispute based on the relevant provisions in the CBA. An arbitration award will be vacated if an arbitrator exceeded his or her powers by interpreting a CBA in such a way that it contravenes state law or other public policies that are not subject to alteration by arbitration.

“Here, the Arbitrator did not resolve the dispute based on any provisions in the CBA. In fact, the Arbitrator decided – improperly we conclude – that, because the CBA did not list offenses and corresponding penalties, he would not rely on the CBA in making his decision and instead would ‘look elsewhere for guidance on this question’ to reach this result. Not only is the CBA pertinent to the determination of just cause in this case, the Arbitrator’s failure to consider its terms was a manifest disregard of the contract.

“The Management Rights section of the CBA provides that the employer shall have the ‘exclusive right, subject to the provisions of this CBA and consistent with applicable laws and regulations: To hire, promote, transfer, assign, and retain employees in positions within the bargaining unit, and to suspend, demote, discharge or take other disciplinary action against such employees.’ The Arbitrator wholly overlooked this section of the CBA in his decision. Because this Court has declared it to be an abuse of an arbitrator’s power if an award fails to draw its essence from the agreement, we are of the opinion that the Arbitrator here abused his power in determining that the DOC director lacked just cause without taking into consideration relevant portions of the CBA.”

Two dissenting justices wrote a vigorous opinion, arguing that the majority of the Court “completely misunderstands and misstates the role of an arbitrator. The Arbitrator here was tasked by the parties, by submission and by agreement, to evaluate evidence presented to him, listen to the arguments of the parties, and make a decision based on the evidence and the relevant contractual language. That is exactly what he did. In his award, the Arbitrator found: (1) The CBA did not contain a negotiated list of offenses and corresponding penalties; (2) the DOC had never before punished dishonesty by the termination of employment; (3) the director’s interest in the safety and security of the institution was compelling; (4) Officer Maddalena had 27 years of discipline-free service; (5) there was not just cause for the termination of Officer Maddalena; and (6) his termination should be revoked and replaced by a 60-day disciplinary suspension without pay. In an opinion that, in our view, sets the law on its head, the majority then simply substitutes its judgment for the judgment of the arbitrator.”

Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 2015 WL 2260930 (R.I. 2015).

Note: Pretty much anywhere else in the country, the Arbitrator’s opinion would be upheld. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that arbitration opinions will not be overturned even if a court determines that an arbitrator has committed “serious error.” This standard has long become the national standard. Except in Rhode Island.