No Evidence That Arbitrator Was Partial In Chief’s Termination Case

Matthew Cummings was the Police Chief for Newton, Massachusetts. Cummings worked under an employment contract, which specified that any dispute concerning his “termination of employment…shall be resolved exclusively by arbitration under the Voluntary Labor Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association.” The agreement also specified that “the arbitrator’s decision, if in accordance with law, shall be final and binding upon the parties.”

When the City terminated Cummings for conduct unbecoming, he invoked arbitration. After a five-day arbitration proceeding, the Arbitrator ruled that the City had not met its burden of showing conduct unbecoming a chief, awarded damages, and ordered reinstatement.

The City filed a complaint in state court seeking to vacate the Arbitrator’s award, arguing in essence that the Arbitrator had exceeded his authority. A judge agreed with the City, vacated the arbitration award, and remanded the matter for reconsideration by the Arbitrator with a limitation of the actual record to a narrower scope than that allowed in the arbitration hearing.

On remand, the Arbitrator followed the judge’s instructions, limited himself to the pretermination evidentiary record, and again found in favor of the Chief. He also again awarded damages, but – because the City now had the option (which it had exercised) to terminate the Chief for any reason during the fifth year of the contract – did not order reinstatement.

The City again challenged the Arbitrator’s opinion, this time taking the matter all the way to an appeals court. The Court rejected the challenge, and upheld the Arbitrator’s revised award.

The City argued that “there was evident partiality by an arbitrator appointed as a neutral.” The Court described that “partiality in this context does not mean that the Arbitrator favored one side over the other, or had a predisposition, was biased, or was ‘partial’ in a colloquial sense. Evident partiality is more than just the appearance of possible bias. Rather evident partiality means a situation in which ‘a reasonable person would have to conclude that an arbitrator was partial to one party to an arbitration. For example, evident partiality may exist where an arbitrator has received consulting fees from a party for a lengthy period, or where he repeatedly represented a party in legal matters, or where he had a long and established business relationship with a party.

“The City has made no showing here of evident partiality as our cases have construed the term. There is nothing to suggest that the Arbitrator had any preexisting relationship with the defendant or his counsel, let alone a relationship that was undisclosed. Instead, the City’s claim of partiality rests entirely upon its assertion that the Arbitrator was ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘frustrated’ with the remand order. Even were we to assume that the Arbitrator expressed frustration in his decision, we do not see how the comment of the Arbitrator evinced a bias against the City.”

City of Newton v. Cummings, 91 Mass. App. Ct. 1118 (Mass. App. 2017).