For The Second Time, Court Orders Employer To Reinstate Officer

On July 17, 2009, an arbitrator found that the conduct of Worcester, Massachusetts Police Officer David Rawlston during an April 2007 off-duty incident did not supply just cause for the termination of his employment. The Arbitrator ordered Rawlston reinstated, and the City Manager of the City of Worcester appealed. In 2013, the Appeals Court for Massachusetts confirmed the arbitrator’s award and ordered Rawlston’s reinstatement.

While the appeal was pending, and approximately one month after the Arbitrator ordered Rawlston reinstated, the City Manager again terminated Rawlston, offering the following explanation: Rawlston’s license to carry a firearm had expired; his application for a new license had been denied; he had failed to appeal that decision; and he could not serve in the Worcester Police Department without having the legal right to carry a firearm. In addition to Rawlston’s lack of a license to carry, the City Manager also cited alleged dishonesty in Rawlston’s application to obtain a new license.

The second termination was arbitrated before a different arbitrator. Once again, the City Manager was directed to reinstate Rawlston. The second Arbitrator’s findings included holdings that the City Manager, and more particularly the Police Chief, had acted capriciously and in bad faith to prevent Rawlston from being reinstated. The Arbitrator concluded that Rawlston had not been deceitful in his application to reinstate his license to carry, and that the City Manager had not demonstrated that a license to carry was a necessary job requirement. Even assuming that possessing a license to carry was, indeed, a job requirement, the Arbitrator noted that the Police Chief had waived that requirement on other occasions.

In fairly stinging words, the second Arbitrator concluded that “just cause for dismissal is not established by the unadorned fact that a chief exercises his discretion to refuse to issue an employee a firearm,” because, if that were all that was needed to dismiss a police officer, the officer’s “contractual right not to be discharged except for just cause is meaningless.” The Arbitrator further held that the Police Chief “may be free to exercise his claimed authority to refuse to permit Rawlston to carry a weapon. But in the realm of just cause, which is the contractual standard for dismissal, the City’s reliance on an alleged ‘disqualification’ that the Chief himself decided to impose so as to prevent Rawlston from reinstatement was capricious and does not meet the test of contractual fairness.”

The City Manager sought to vacate the second Arbitrator’s award, and the dispute once again wound up in the Appeals Court, which once again ordered the City to reinstate Rawlston. The Court’s opinion focused on the limited review courts undertake of arbitration decisions that are bargained to be final and binding: “On judicial review of an arbitrator’s decision, we are strictly bound by the arbitrator’s findings and legal conclusions, whether or not they are erroneous. In this case, no less than the prior case, the factual and legal underpinnings necessary to the application of the public policy exception are lacking. The Arbitrator did not issue an award of reinstatement that flies in the face of factual findings of misconduct; there is no inconsistency between the findings of the Arbitrator and his award of reinstatement.”

City Manager of Worcester v. New England Police Benevolent Association, 2014 WL 1884385 (Mass. App. 2014).