July 15, 2016

An arbitration award must be vacated if a party's rights were impaired by an arbitrator exceeding his or her power in making the determination

An arbitration award must be vacated if a party's rights were impaired by an arbitrator exceeding his or her power in making the determination
Matter of O'Flynn (Monroe County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn., Inc.), 2016 NY Slip Op. 05261, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department terminated then Deputy Sergeant Paul Doser from his position after Doser was involved in a one-car rollover accident and it was determined that he was driving while intoxicated (DWI).

The appointing authority filed disciplinary charges against Doser alleging: (1) Driving while intoxicated in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §1192(3); (2) Aggravated DWI with a blood alcohol content of .18 percent or greater in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §1192(2-a)(a); (3) Aggravated DWI with a child in the car in violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §1192(2-a)(b); (4) Endangering the welfare of a child in violation of Penal Law §260.10(1); and (5) Engaging in conduct unbecoming of his position. 

Consistent with the controlling collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the Department held a administrative disciplinary hearing at which Doser was represented by the Monroe County Deputy Sheriffs' Association, Inc. [Association]. Doser was found guilty of all the charges filed against him and the penalty imposed was termination.

Doser then filed a grievance challenging the Department’s disciplinary decision and, pursuant to the CBA, a hearing was held before an arbitrator.

At the arbitration the arbitrator found that certain evidence, including the chemical test results measuring Doser's blood alcohol content, was inadmissible. Refusing to consider such evidence, the arbitrator found that the second and fifth charges were not supported by clear and convincing evidence and dismissed those charges but sustained charges one, three, and four.

Comparing the penalty imposed on Doser, termination, with the penalties imposed on other officers also involved in similar DWI-related violations, the arbitrator noted that none of the other officers had been terminated. Concluding that Doser's termination was arbitrary and capricious, the arbitrator ruled [1] that demotion, rather than termination, was the appropriate penalty and [2] that Doser was to be reinstated by the Department and compensated for lost pay.

The Department filed a CPLR §7511 petition seeking to vacate the arbitrator's determination and award. Finding that the arbitrator “exceeded his authority by improperly neglecting to consider certain evidence” received in the course of the disciplinary hearing, Supreme Court vacated the award in its entirety, and ordered a rehearing before a different arbitrator.

The Association appealed the Supreme Court’s decision. The Appellate Division, however, sustained the lower court’s ruling, explaining that CPLR §7511(b) provides that an arbitration award must be vacated if, as relevant in this appeal, “a party's rights were impaired by an arbitrator who exceeded his [or her] power or so imperfectly executed it that a final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made."

The Appellate Division observed that "[i]t is well settled that a court may vacate an arbitration award only if it violates a strong public policy, is irrational, or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator's power" and “[o]utside of these narrowly circumscribed exceptions, courts lack authority to review arbitral decisions, even where an arbitrator has made an error of law or fact." The court concluded that the arbitrator, in this instance, had “clearly exceeded his authority as provided by the CBA.”

Rather than comply with the provisions in the CBA that "[t]he arbitrator shall review the record of the disciplinary hearing and determine if the finding of guilt was based upon clear and convincing evidence," the arbitrator, instead of reviewing the record from the hearing, considered only a portion of the record after having decided to exclude certain evidence from his review.

Having failed to review all the evidence that, in this instance, the arbitrator was required to review, the Appellate Division concluded that Supreme Court had properly found that the arbitrator exceeded his authority and vacated the arbitration award. In so doing, the Appellate Division rejected the Association’s argument that “any error in this regard was harmless.” Rather, said the court, the arbitrator’s refusal to consider the inappropriately-excluded evidence directly resulted in the dismissal of two out of the five charges.

In addition, the Appellate Division rejected the Association’s claim that even if that error did not impact the arbitrator's determination as to the penalty to be imposed, the imposition of the penalty of termination was arbitrary and capricious in and of itself. The Appellate Division disagreed, explaining by the arbitrator's  making comparisons between the conduct alleged against Doser and that committed by other officers in other, similar, cases after excluding certain evidence against Doser resulted making a comparison without the benefit of a full review of the record.

As to the objection of the Association to Supreme Court’s ordering a rehearing before a different arbitrator, the Appellate Division said that in “vacating an arbitration award, a court has the discretion to ‘order a rehearing and determination of all or any of the issues either before the same arbitrator or before a new arbitrator.’" As the arbitrator making the decision challenged by the Department exceeded his authority under the CBA, the Appellate Division said it conclude that the court did not abuse its discretion in ordering that a different arbitrator conduct the rehearing and affirmed the Supreme Court’s order vacating the initial arbitrator’s opinion and award and ordering a rehearing before a different arbitrator.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

A Reasonable Penalty Under The Circumstances - a 618-page volume focusing on New York State court and administrative decisions addressing an appropriate disciplinary penalty to be imposed on an employee in the public service found guilty of misconduct or incompetence. For more information click on http://booklocker.com/7401.html



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