The always informative NY Public Personnel law blog on a recent whistleblower case:

Arbitrator’s refusal to hear employee’s “whistle blower” defense in the course of disciplinary hearing requires the vacating of the award

 

Arbitrator’s refusal to hear employee’s “whistle blower” defense in the course of disciplinary hearing requires the vacating of the award

Matter of Kowaleski v New York State Dept. of Correctional Servs., 2010 NY Slip Op 09379, Decided on December 21, 2010, Court of Appeals

Barbara Kowaleski, a correction officer employed by the New York State Department of Corrections, was served with disciplinary charges alleging that she violated provisions of the employees’ manual on three separate occasions when she "made inappropriate comments of a personal nature about another staff member in the presence of staff and inmates"; argued with a fellow employee; and was "disrespectful and insubordinate" when she ignored a superior’s order.
The proposed penalty: termination and the loss of any accrued leave.

Ultimately the matter was submitted to a disciplinary arbitration.

At the outset of the hearing, Kowaleski argued that the disciplinary action was only being brought to retaliate against her for reporting a fellow officer’s misconduct and that she was entitled to raise this as an affirmative defense pursuant to Civil Service Law §75-b, contending that §75-b prohibits public employers from retaliating against employees for reporting their coworkers’ improper conduct.

The arbitrator determined that because the Collective Bargaining Agreement [CBA] limited his authority "to determinations of guilt or innocence and the appropriateness of proposed penalties," he lacked authority to consider Kowaleski’s retaliation defense. The arbitrator, however, indicated that he would consider evidence of retaliation when determining witness credibility and "in the larger context of guilt or innocence."

The arbitrator found Kowaleski guilty of two of the three charges and determined that termination was appropriate and Kowaleski filed a petition pursuant to Article 75 of the CPLR seeking to have the award vacated.

Although Supreme Court and the Appellate Division rejected Kowaleski’s appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts’ rulings “[b]ecause we find that the arbitrator’s failure to separately consider and determine Kowaleski’s affirmative defense of retaliation on the merits requires the award to be vacated”

The Court of Appeals explained that an arbitration award must be vacated if, as relevant here, a party’s rights were impaired by an arbitrator who "exceeded his power or so imperfectly executed it that a final and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made (see CPLR 7511 [b] [1] [iii]). Further, said the court, an arbitrator "exceed[s] his power" under the meaning of the statute where his "award violates a strong public policy, is irrational or clearly exceeds a specifically enumerated limitation on the arbitrator’s power."

As the lower courts found, and Correction conceded, the arbitrator “not only had authority to consider Kowaleski’s retaliation defense, but was required to do so.”

Further, the opinion indicates that Civil Service Law §75-b prohibits a public employer from taking disciplinary action to retaliate against an employee for reporting "improper governmental action" and in the event the employee reasonably believes disciplinary action would not have been taken “but for" the whistle blowing, the employee may assert such as a defense before the designated arbitrator or hearing officer."

Whatever the terms of the CBA, the Court of Appeals said that
"[t]he merits of such defense shall be considered and determined as part of the arbitration award or hearing officer decision." Further, should the arbitrator or hearing officer find that the disciplinary action is based “solely on the employer’s desire to retaliate,” the disciplinary proceeding must be dismissed.

Accordingly, the arbitrator’s finding that he did not have authority under the CBA to consider Kowaleski’s retaliation defense was not only incorrect as a matter of law, but also in excess of an explicit limitation on his power. Because he failed to consider and determine the defense, the court ruled that the award must be vacated.

Finally, the Court of Appeals noted the Kowaleski has requested that any rehearing be before a different arbitrator. That request, said the court, should be ruled on by Supreme Court in the exercise of its discretion.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:
http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2010/2010_09379.htm
 

POSTED BY THE PUBLIC EMPLOYMENT LAW PRESS ON WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2010