Arbitrator, Not Courts, Decides Who Should Be Grievant

The Hartsdale, New York Fire District is party to a collective bargaining agreement with Local 1586 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. When Local 1586 attempted to process a grievance to arbitration, the District filed a lawsuit to permanently enjoin the arbitration. The District’s theory was that under the collective bargaining agreement, only individual employees and not the union could refer a grievance to arbitration.

An appeals court rejected the District’s lawsuit. The Court found that the collective bargaining agreement’s grievance procedure was “broad,” and allowed arbitration over any issue concerning “the meaning, application, or interpretation” of the collective bargaining agreement. The grievance procedure also provides that a grievance may be pursued “for any question or problem that may arise.”

In the case before it, Local 1586’s grievance challenged the District’s directive that firefighters work and train in a fire-damaged firehouse before the firehouse was fully repaired. The Court found that there was a “reasonable relationship” between the grievance and the collective bargaining agreement. The Court added, “moreover, the arbitration clause does not specifically exclude from arbitration the subject matter of the grievance, which concerns public health and the safety of public employees. Accordingly, the question of the scope of the substantive provisions of the contract is a matter of interpretation and application reserved for the arbitrator.”

The District also argued that under the collective bargaining agreement, only individuals, and not Local 1586, could refer grievances to arbitration. The Court held that an arbitrator, and not the courts, should decide such an issue: “There is no merit to the District’s contentions that the Court should address the issue of whether Local 1586 failed to comply with a condition precedent before demanding arbitration. In general, disputes over the parties’ adherence to the grievance procedure is for the arbitrator to determine, not the courts. The District’s contention that grievances must be pursued only by individual employees, rather than by Local 1586, especially in light of Local 1586’s contention that the District has a past practice of hearing grievances pursued solely by Local 1586, is a matter for the arbitrator to resolve.”

Hartsdale Fire District v. Greenburgh Uniform Firefighters Association, 865 N.Y.S.2d 347 (A.D. 2008).

This article appears in the January 2009 issue