• Court Confirms Arbitration Award Allowing Violent Employee To Return To Work
  • May 25, 2006
  • Law Firm: Jenner & Block LLP - Chicago Office
  • When Independent Chemical Corp. learned that one of it its employees, whose job involved handling dangerous chemicals with little supervision, was indicted for attempted murder and other felonies, the company suspended the employee pending resolution of the indictments. Nonetheless, when the Union representing the employee pursued the matter to arbitration, the arbitration panel vacated the suspension and awarded the employee back pay, and a court affirmed the award. See Independent Chemical Corp. v. Local Union 807, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 2006 WL 1071581 (E.D.N.Y. 2006).

    The employee worked primarily the second shift at a warehouse with no security personnel and limited supervision at night. In addition, the employee handled dangerous chemicals in the course of his duties.

    On or about July 22, 2004, the employee was arrested for allegedly shooting his common law wife in front of his daughter, and was later indicted for attempted murder, assault, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child.

    The employee had a history of significant disciplinary issues. The employee had previously been given written warnings for violating company phone use policies, and had been suspended for mis-loading chemicals. In addition, the employee had previously exhibited violent behavior in the workplace, including yelling and swearing at his supervisor, throwing a suspension letter at his supervisor, and punching a steel forklift. Co-workers also reported that the employee had brought a gun to work on one occasion and had beaten a non-employee on company premises. However, the employee was not disciplined for any of those incidents.

    When the company learned of the employee's arrest, it sent him a letter stating that he would not be allowed to return to work pending the resolution of the felony charges. The letter explained that the nature of the employee's alleged violent crimes could reasonably create fear of danger among his fellow employees, and that given the nature of the employee's work with dangerous chemicals, the company could not return him to work until he was cleared of the charges brought against him. The union challenged this action as an "unjust suspension." The grievance was presented to an arbitration panel who upheld the union's grievance without providing any reasoning or conclusions.

    The district court reviewing the arbitrators' award found that, absent fraud or dishonesty, it was required to defer to the arbitrators' decision, provided that the arbitrators were even arguably construing or applying the contract and acted within the scope of their authority. The court found that the parties' collective bargaining agreement required the company to issue a warning notice at least seven days prior to a suspension or discharge, with the exception of several listed offenses that warranted immediate discharge. Holding that the company failed to issue a written notice and that none of the grounds for immediate discharge applied, the court found that the arbitrators could have reasonably concluded that the suspension was not warranted. Although possession of a firearm on company property was grounds for immediate discharge under the contract (the evidence of the reported gun incident may have been questionable), the court found that the company could not rely on that provision because the suspension letter did not mention the firearm, instead focusing solely on the felony charges brought against the employee. In addition, the court rejected the company's attempt to vacate the arbitrators' award on public policy grounds, finding no sufficiently explicit, well-defined and dominant policy found in the Occupational Safety and Health Act that would justify vacating the arbitration award. Accordingly, the court denied the company's motion to vacate the award and granted the union's motion to confirm the award.

    On April 12, 2006, after the arbitrators' award but before the district court ruling, the employee was acquitted of all felony charges, but was convicted of criminal possession of a weapon and endangering the welfare of a child.

    A lesson learned from this case is the importance of following the terms of the parties' collective bargaining agreement precisely. Had the employer issued a written notice prior to suspending the employee as required by the parties' agreement, it is possible that the violent employee would not have been reinstated.