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December 30, 2010

Vacating an arbitrator’s award

Vacating an arbitrator’s award
State Nurses Association v Mount Sinai Hospital, 275 AD2d 538

The Appellate Division, Third Department’s ruling in the State Nurses Association case provides a reminder of the guidelines used by the courts when considering a motion to vacate an arbitration award.

The Association attempted to confirm a disciplinary arbitration award involving one of its members.

The arbitrator ruled that although Mount Sinai had just cause to suspend Barbara Tomasino, a registered nurse, dismissal was too harsh a penalty. The arbitrator reasoned that given Tomasino’s long and distinguished employment at Mount Sinai, the lengthy suspension -- 2 1/2 years -- constituted sufficient and appropriate discipline.

The arbitrator directed the hospital to reinstate Tomasino without back pay or benefits and the 2 1/2 years she was out of service was to be deemed a suspension without pay. The hospital, however, refused to allow Tomasino to return to work and the Association brought an Article 75 action seeking to confirm the arbitrator’s award.

Mount Sinai objected and asked the court to vacate the arbitration award on the grounds that it was against public policy, irrational and in excess of the arbitrator’s authority under the CBA. After a State Supreme Court judge confirmed the arbitration award and directed Tomasino’s immediate reinstatement, with back pay and benefits from the date her suspension ended to the date of reinstatement, Mount Sinai appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s ruling, noting that the limited role courts have in disposing of disputes submitted to binding arbitration pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. Citing NYS Correctional Officers v State of New York, 94 NY2d 321, the court said:

“Courts are bound by an arbitrator’s factual findings, interpretation of the contract and judgment concerning remedies.”

Although a court may vacate an award when it determines that it is in violation of a strong public policy, is irrational or exceeds a specific limitation on the arbitrator’s power, the Appellate Division said that it did not find that any of these elements applicable in this case.

On the specific issue of the claim that the penalty imposed violates public policy, the Appellate Division ruled:

“Under the particular circumstances of this case, we find that the arbitrator’s imposition of a 2 and 1/2-year suspension was not in contravention of public policy since [Mount Sinai] has not identified any statute or regulation which requires termination of employment rather than a lengthy suspension in connection with such conduct.”

Also rejected was Mount Sinai’s argument that the arbitrator’s award was irrational, particularly in view of the parties’ explicit direction that the arbitrator determine the remedy due Tomasino if it found a lack of just cause for her dismissal. The court’s conclusion with respect to the penalty imposed by the arbitrator: the remedy of reinstatement without back pay and benefits was well within the arbitrator ‘s authority.

On a related point, in Greenberg v Bear, Stearns & Co. Inc., 220 F.3d 22, the court said that “where a petitioner complains ... in good faith that an arbitration award was rendered in manifest disregard of federal law, the federal courts have jurisdiction to entertain the petition.”

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