By Wayne D. Garris Jr., J.D.
Although arbitrators are given a “heavy degree of deference,” the court stated that it is not an “amen corner” for arbitrators’ rulings.
Affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment to a hospital employer, and its vacation of an arbitration award, the Third Circuit found that the award in favor of a union challenging the denial of an employee’s vacation request was not entitled to deference because it “in no rational way [drew] its essence from the CBA.” The arbitrator’s decision not only ignored the plain language of the collective bargaining agreement, which provided the employer with the final, exclusive, and unilateral right to schedule vacations, his ruling that the employer could not deny an employee’s vacation request when there was no “operating need” exceeded his authority under the CBA (Monongahela Valley Hospital Inc. v. United Steel Paper and Forestry Rubber Manufacturing Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union AFL-CIO, December 30, 2019, Ambro, T.).
CBA. The union represents about half of the employer’s 1,100 employees. Under the CBA between the employer and union, the employer must “so far as possible” grant employees’ vacation requests. The employer, however, has the “final right” to change vacation periods and this right is “exclusive.”
Arbitration. When a bargaining unit employee requested vacation during the week of December 25, 2017, the employer denied her request because a non-bargaining unit working supervisor had requested the same week off and both employees could not be off at the same time. The employee filed a grievance alleging that the denial violated the CBA and the grievance proceeded to arbitration.
Ruling in favor of the union, the arbitrator found he could not conclude that the employer had exclusive authority to change vacations as such a ruling would negate the “so far as possible” language in the CBA because then the employer could always deny bargaining employees’ vacation requests. Instead, the arbitrator sustained the grievance, concluding that the CBA prevented the employer from denying senior employees in the bargaining unit their desired vacation when there was no operating need. The employer filed a complaint in district court seeking to vacate the arbitration award. The district granted summary judgment for the employer and the union appealed.
Plain language. Under the CBA, the employer had the “final” and “exclusive” right to deny employees their desired vacation. The arbitrator ignored this plain language, however, and determined that the “so far as possible” language must be given some meaning or else the rights of bargaining unit employees “could always be negated.” Disagreeing, the appeals court found that “so far as possible” was a subordinate phrase qualified by the surrounding language in the CBA. Thus, “so far as possible” only required the hospital to consider in good faith the bargaining unit employees’ preferences when exercising its final and exclusive right to determine vacation requests.
The arbitration decision, said the court, “flips the CBA on its head” by granting the union preference in vacation disputes even though the CBA clearly gave the employer final and exclusive authority over vacation scheduling. Thus, the court declined to affirm the award.
Exceeded authority. In addition, the arbitrator exceeded his authority when he imposed the “operating need” requirement into the award. Under the CBA, the arbitrator had no authority to “add to, detract from or alter in any way the provisions of [the CBA].” Here, the arbitrator improperly determined that when a vacation conflict arises, the bargaining unit employee should prevail and inserted language in the CBA to that effect even though that phrase did not appear in the CBA. Citing a prior Third Circuit decision, the court noted “[w]here an arbitrator injects a restriction into a contract to which the Hospital did not agree and to which the bargaining unit employee are not entitled, he dispenses his own brand of industrial justice and should be overturned.”
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