That Arbitrator’s Decision May Be Wrong Is No Reason To Overturn It

The collective bargaining agreement between the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the City of Lansing, Michigan contains a detailed procedure for the promotion of sergeants to lieutenants. The contract provides that “all Sergeant IIIs who will have two (2) years of service as a Sergeant III prior to April 1 in the year that a Lieutenant process is conducted, will be eligible to compete in the promotional process. However, a Sergeant III will not be eligible for promotion to Lieutenant V until he/she has completed two (2) years of service as a Sergeant III.”

In October 2001, the City announced the commencement of the promotional process for a number of positions, including that of lieutenant. A notice stated that a candidate would not be eligible for promotion from the resulting roster until he or she had accumulated two years’ experience as a Sergeant III. Promotional testing was conducted in February 2002. Sergeant Garcia participated in the testing process, and was placed in band two of eligible candidates for promotion.

The FOP filed a grievance over the inclusion of Sergeant Garcia on the promotion list on the ground that, as of April 1, 2002, he did not have two years’ experience as a Sergeant III. The grievance was denied, and the matter proceeded to arbitration.

An arbitrator upheld the grievance, concluding that while the first sentences of the promotional article in the collective bargaining agreement might seem to be redundant, that fact “did not negate the fact that each sets forth a clear requirement. The first sentence requires that a person have two years’ experience as a Sergeant III in order to compete in the promotional process. The second sentence indicates that a candidate is not eligible for promotion until he or she has two years’ experience as a Sergeant III.”

The Arbitrator reasoned that past practice and the FOP’s failure to grieve past violations did not negate the meaning of the language. The Arbitrator ruled that Sergeant Garcia’s name must be removed from the list of candidates eligible for promotion, or, if he had been promoted, his promotion must be rescinded.

The City challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court, arguing that the Arbitrator exceeded his authority and jurisdiction under the contract. Demonstrating the reluctance courts have to overturn arbitration decisions, the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed the City’s lawsuit.

The Court found that “labor arbitration is a product of contract. An arbitrator’s authority to resolve a dispute arising out of the interpretation of a collective bargaining agreement is derived exclusively from the contract. Judicial review of an arbitrator’s decision is limited. A court cannot review factual findings or the merits of the decision, but may only decide whether the arbitrator’s decision draws its essence from the contract. If the arbitrator did not disregard the scope of his authority as expressed in the contract, judicial review ceases.

“Here, the Arbitrator examined the language of the contract and concluded that it required a Sergeant III to have two years’ experience in that rank before he or she could compete in the promotional process. The fact that we might have reached a different decision, or that the Arbitrator’s interpretation of the parties’ contract might be wrong, is irrelevant.”

City of Lansing v. Capitol City Lodge No. 141 of the Fraternal Order of Police, 2005 WL 2045881 (Mich.App. 2005).

This article appears in the October 2005 issue