The Public Policy Exception to Labor Arbitration Award Enforcement: A Path Through the Bramble Bush
40 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2012 Last revised: 21 Nov 2012
Date Written: June 7, 2012
Prompted by a dispute over a labor arbitrator’s controversial reinstatement award in favor of an Oregon police officer who fatally shot a suicidal black man in the back after the man’s family had called the police for help, this article argues for a revitalized public policy exception to arbitral award enforcement. In this view, the public policy exception sometimes suffers from too cribbed an interpretation by both management and union lawyers, arbitrators, and reviewing courts and labor boards. At the same time a revitalized public policy exception must be applied judiciously so as not to undermine the bedrock labor relations policy embodied in the Steelworkers Trilogy favoring final and binding arbitration of workplace disputes in the unionized sector. Drawing on lessons from a close reading of the three leading public policy decisions of the United States Supreme Court — herein dubbed the “Public Policy Trilogy” — the article shows how reviewing bodies SHOULD review de novo the question whether reinstatement REMEDIES, and not the underlying employee conduct, comply with clearly defined public policies. The Steelworkers Trilogy can be accommodated by confining the public policy review to the question of reinstatement — as distinct from the question whether the arbitral finding of a contract violation draws its “essence” from the collective bargaining agreement — and further, by basing the public policy review on facts found by the arbitrator in accordance with the parties’ agreement to submit their dispute to “final and binding” arbitration. These principles derive from a close reading of the Supreme Court’s holdings and discussion in the Public Policy Trilogy. The article shows how public sector cases in the private sector, and in the public sector in Oregon, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, while largely consistent with this more nuanced view of the Trilogy, have occasionally strayed from these teachings and too narrowly applied the public policy exception.
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