Zero drug tolerance policy must be consistent with terms of the collective bargaining agreement
Matter of Matter of Shenendehowa Cent. School Dist. Bd. of Educ. (Civil Serv. Empls. Assn., Inc., Local 1000, 2011 NY Slip Op 08703, Appellate Division, Third Department
The Civil Service Employees Association had filed a grievance challenging the dismissal of one of the employees in the collective bargaining unit it represented was terminated after failing a random test for drug and alcohol test. The issues that the parties jointly presented to the arbitrator were, "Did [the school district] violate Article IV of the Collective Bargaining Agreement [CBA] when it terminated [the employee]? If so, what shall the remedy be?"
The arbitrator determined that employee had tested positive for marijuana, but that the school district had violated the CBA by terminating her. As a remedy, the arbitrator directed that the employee be reinstate, without back pay, but required that she comply with follow-up drug and alcohol testing and an evaluation by a substance abuse professional.
Supreme Court granted the Shenendehowa Central School District’s Article 75 petition seeking vacate an arbitration award thereby “reinstating the employee’s termination.”
The Appellate Division disagreed, ruling that the award was not against public policy was rational, and in making the award the arbitrator did not exceed his powers, holding that “Supreme Court should have confirmed the arbitration award.”
The Appellate Division explained that “If a matter is submitted to arbitration, reviewing courts should not interpret substantive conditions of the agreement or delve into the merits of the dispute.” Citing Matter of Grasso, 72 AD2d 1463 [Leave to appeal denied, 15 NY3d 703], the court said that "Courts must give deference to an arbitrator's decision and cannot examine the merits of an arbitration award, even if the arbitrator misapplied or misinterpreted the law or facts, but a court may vacate an award" where it "violates a strong public policy, is irrational or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator's power." Further, the Appellate Division stated that "[W]here an agreement is 'reasonably susceptible of the construction given it by the arbitrator, a court may not vacate the award," citing Matter of Albany County Sheriffs Local 775 of N.Y. State Law Enforcement Officers Union, Dist. Council 82, AFSCME, AFL-CIO [County of Albany], 27 AD3d 979.
Underlying the school district’s decision to terminate the employee was its assertion that it had “a zero tolerance policy concerning positive drug tests, thereby mandating discharge.” However, said the court, no such written policy was produced in evidence. Rather, the school district’s written drug testing policy states that a violation "shall be grounds for disciplinary action including, but not limited to, fines, suspension and/or discharge."
Here, said the Appellate Division, the arbitrator reasoned that the school district did not have a written zero tolerance policy. When read in conjunction with the CBA, the district’s policy “permitted either suspension without pay or discharge after a positive drug test result.”
The arbitrator, the court found, determined that school district had violated the CBA by refusing to consider the disciplinary options provided for in petitioner's own policy and the CBA, instead imposing the penalty of discharge as if it were mandatory.
According to the decision, if the school district intended to implement a zero tolerance policy, it could and should have negotiated with CSEA to include such mandatory language in the CBA. Not having done so, petitioner must abide by the language actually negotiated for and agreed upon with CSEA.
Having determined that the school district had violated the CBA, the arbitrator — who was permitted by the parties' statement of the issues to determine a remedy — then found the appropriate penalty for respondent to be reinstatement without back pay, which equated to a suspension of approximately six months without pay, a rational result and with the powers granted to the arbitrator.
The decision is posted on the Internet at: