California Arbitrators Not Limited By ‘Abuse Of Discretion’ Standard In Disciplinary Cases

A clause in the Memorandum of Understanding (California’s equivalent of a collective bargaining agreement) between the City of Oroville and the Oroville Police Officers Association allows officers to challenge discipline through a grievance procedure if the discipline is not for “cause.” After the City decided to terminate the employment of Officer Jerry Roberson, the Association appealed the discipline through the grievance procedure.

When the City and the Association disagreed on the issue the Arbitrator was to decide, the City filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that the Arbitrator should be limited to reviewing the City’s decision to terminate Roberson for an abuse of discretion, deciding only whether the decision was reached honestly and for reasons not arbitrary or pretextual.
The California Court of Appeals rejected the City’s arguments. The Court observed that “nothing in the MOU indicates it is the decision-making process rather than the decision that is to be arbitrated. While the MOU is silent as to the standard of review the Arbitrator is to employ in determining whether there was cause for discharge, a court should defer to the Arbitrator in resolving any ambiguities of the arbitration agreement, such as the scope of the issues to be arbitrated.”

The City argued that the use of the word “appeal” in the grievance procedure limited the Arbitrator to serving in an appellate function where the inquiry often is whether there was an abuse of discretion. The Court found otherwise, finding that the word “appeal” tracks the language of California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights. The Court concluded that “these requirements of the Bill of Rights for an administrative appeal are not consistent with limiting the Arbitrator to an abuse of discretion standard. The Arbitrator must determine facts, not simply rely on those found by the City administrator. The City has the burden of proving the facts essential to support discharge. This burden is not met by simply showing the decision-making process was fair.”

City of Oroville v. Oroville Police Officers Association, 2008 WL 626047 (Cal.App. 2008).

This article appears in the June 2008 issue