Curious Court Decision Overturning Arbitrator’s Opinion

An arbitrator’s past practice decision as to placement of newly-promoted police sergeants on the employer’s salary schedule has produced a most unusual court decision in Illinois.

The case arose out of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, which has a law enforcement agency. The Fraternal Order of Police filed two grievances concerning the placement of newly-promoted patrol officers on the sergeants’ salary schedule. The Union argued that the placement of the sergeants on the schedule should be governed by their years of service with the employer. The employer responded that the sergeants’ placement on the schedule should be governed by its personnel rules, which provide that a newly-promoted sergeant’s schedule was comparable to a two-step increase on the patrol officers’ salary schedule without regard to length of service with the employer.

An arbitrator upheld the grievance. The Arbitrator found that the contract was silent on the issue of placement of employees on salary schedules. The Arbitrator based his opinion on a historic practice under which the District based salary schedules on total longevity with the District, not on longevity as a sergeant.

The Illinois Court of Appeals overturned the Arbitrator’s opinion. The Court acknowledged that “judicial review of an arbitrator’s award is extremely limited, and that an arbitrator’s opinion must be upheld if the arbitrator acts within the scope of his or her authority and the award draws its essence from the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator, not the court, determines the meaning of the collective bargaining agreement as that is what the parties bargained for.”

Those preliminaries out of the way, the Court found that the Arbitrator “imposed his own personal view of right and wrong on the labor dispute. The Arbitrator’s rationale for deviating from the Personnel Rules was the District’s ‘long-established practice’ of paying newly-promoted sergeants based on their years of service. But the Arbitrator provides no examples of this historical practice. Neither does the Union. Moreover, even if the Union could provide evidence of the District’s practice of deviating from the Personnel Rules, a long-standing policy outside of the CBA does not draw its essence from the CBA.”

Forest Preserve District of Cook County v. Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, 33 PERI ¶ 91 (lll. App. 2017).

Note: Most courts would have upheld the Arbitrator’s opinion. A fair statement of the general rule is that so long as an arbitrator’s opinion is grounded in the collective bargaining agreement, a court must completely defer to an arbitrator’s findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Arbitrator’s opinion in the Forest Preserve case was clearly rooted in the contract, not only interpreting the wage schedule in the contract but also applying the principle of past practice. What the Court seems to have held is that the Arbitrator got it wrong – read the contract wrong and misapprehended the past practice. Most courts would not find that conclusion – even if correct – to be an adequate basis to overturn an arbitrator’s opinion.