Monday, August 01, 2011

Authority to initiate discipline for just cause implies the imposition of a “just penalty”

Authority to initiate discipline for just cause implies the imposition of a “just penalty”
Boston Med. Center v Local 285, 260 F.3d 16


Many collective bargaining agreements provide that an employee may be disciplined “for just cause.” However, few contracts define “just cause.”


In the Boston Medical Center [BMC] case, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the application of a negotiated agreement that permitted an employer to discipline employees for just cause. Its conclusion: the term just cause not only applies in initiating disciplinary action against an employee; it also encompasses the concept of imposing a “just penalty” based on the offense or offenses for which the employee is found guilty.


Katherine Hartney, a registered nurse [RN] employed by BMC for some ten years, was terminated following the death of an infant under her care. BMC's action was based on its determination that Hartney “engaged in serious substandard nursing practices” in caring for the infant.


The Union grieved Hartney's discharge to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled that BMC violated the collective bargaining agreement because it terminated Hartney without just cause. She reinstated Hartney and reduced the penalty imposed by BMC from discharge to an unpaid, nine-month suspension without pay. BMC attempted to have the arbitration award vacated.


The issues submitted to the arbitrator:


1. Did the Hospital violate Article XV of the collective bargaining agreement when it terminated the grievant, Katherine Hartney, on October 2, 1998?; and


2. If so, what shall be the remedy?” Article XV of the collective bargaining agreement provides: “No RN who has completed his/her probationary period shall be disciplined or discharged except for just cause.”


The arbitrator concluded that “there is just cause for the imposition of discipline in this matter but ... discharge is too harsh a penalty for an employee with an unblemished record of employment for nearly ten years.” In considering the appropriate penalty, the arbitrator said that:


“While [Article XV] makes no explicit reference to progressive discipline, it references 'just cause,' a concept which encompasses both liability for the action(s) charged and fairness in the amount of discipline imposed.”


BMC was ordered to reinstate Hartney, without back pay, and directed Hartney to participate in a remedial educational program as part of the reinstatement process.


The Circuit Court decided that the plain language of Article XV, requiring just cause before an RN is disciplined or discharged, contemplates a range of disciplinary penalty responses. The court said that it agreed with the arbitrator's rationale that the concept of just cause requires a close relationship between the employee's misconduct and the employer's response along that disciplinary range.


Thus, said the court, the arbitrator was free to conclude that there was no just cause for discharging Hartney, but that there was just cause for imposing a lesser disciplinary penalty. In other words, it was appropriate for the arbitrator to conclude that the employer's right to discipline an employee for just cause was subject to consideration of a just penalty as well. This concept has been recognized by New York State's Court of Appeals in Pell v Board of Education, 34 NY2d 222.

In reversing the district court's judgment granting summary judgment in favor of BMC, the Circuit Court said that it did not minimize in any way the tragic death of the infant. However, the court explained, BMC signed a collective bargaining agreement containing an arbitration clause conveying substantial authority to the arbitrator to decide whether there is just cause for discharge. If, said the Circuit Court, BMC wants to reserve more “disciplinary authority” to itself, it may attempt to do so during its next round of contract negotiations.

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