Arbitrator, Not Court, Should Define ‘Grandparents’

Deputy Angela Molea submitted a request to her employer, the Summit County Sheriff’s Department in Ohio, to use bereavement leave to attend the funeral of her husband’s grandfather. The collective bargaining agreement between the County and Molea’s labor organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, permitted the use of bereavement leave for “grandparents.”

Although similar requests had been granted in the past, the Sheriff denied Molea’s request, citing the execution of a new collective bargaining agreement and a memorandum from the Sheriff informing employees that all past practices had been discontinued as a result. Instead, the Sheriff informed Molea that she could request sick leave to cover her absence. The FOP referred to arbitration a grievance challenging the denial of Molea’s request.

An arbitrator upheld the grievance. That Arbitrator found that for many years, bargaining unit employees were permitted to use funeral leave in connection with the death of a spouse’s grandparent. During this period of time, several collective bargaining agreements were negotiated. During negotiations related to the current collective bargaining agreement, the Sheriff proposed substantive changes to the funeral leave provisions, but that proposal was withdrawn. On the same date that the collective bargaining agreement took effect, the Sheriff unilaterally notified bargaining unit members of his intention to discontinue all past practices that arose under prior agreements.

The Arbitrator ruled that that the meaning of the word “grandparents” in the context of the funeral leave policy was ambiguous and that consequently, the meaning ascribed to it must be “the manner in which the parties have used the word.” The Arbitrator observed that “for over a decade, it meant both the grandparent of the union member and the grandparent of the spouse of the union member.” The Arbitrator concluded that under the circumstances, the term “grandparents” had been given the meaning advocated by the FOP, and the Sheriff could not unilaterally discontinue the past practice when he failed to obtain that result through negotiation.

A trial court overturned the Arbitrator’s decision, concluding that the term “grandparents” was not only unambiguous, but included only blood relatives. The FOP then appealed the trial court’s decision to the Ohio Court of Appeals.

The Court reinstated the Arbitrator’s opinion. The Court held that “the Arbitrator undertook a detailed analysis of the contract terms, bearing in mind the well-established labor arbitration principle that where practice has established a meaning for language contained in past contracts and continued by the parties in a new agreement, the language will be presumed to have the meaning given to it by that practice. In doing so, he did not disregard or contradict the express terms of the agreement, but applied and construed the collective bargaining agreement within the scope of the matter submitted to him.

“In other words, the award draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement and, as such, the reviewing courts’ inquiry is at an end. Neither strong disagreement nor the belief that an arbitrator committed serious error is grounds for vacating an award.”

Summit County Sheriff v. Fraternal Order of Police, 34 OPER ¶ 54 (Ohio App. 2017).