Appeals Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Award Reinstating Employee, Even Where Arbitrator Found He Sexually Harassed A Co-Worker
The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld an arbitrator’s reinstatement of a City of Springfield employee who was found to have sexually harassed a co-worker. The case is City of Springfield v. United Public Service Employees Unions, No. 15-P-742. The three judge panel, adhering to the high deference afforded an arbitrator’s decision, refused to find that the award violated public policy. The court found that while there is certainly a strong public policy against sexual harassment, the reinstatement of the grievant did not violate that public policy as he was still subject to remedial action for his behavior.
The grievant, a twenty-two year employee of the Springfield housing office with an “unblemished” record, was a messenger for the office. He suffers from “significant physical and mental health problems” and has a “mildly impaired overall [IQ] of 74.” He was fired over one incident, in which he made lewd statements and gestures toward a female employee, causing her significant upset. His union filed a grievance, and following a two day hearing, an arbitrator found that there was not just cause for the termination, and ordered him “reinstated to his position without loss of compensation or other rights.” The arbitrator found that the grievant’s conduct did amount to sexual harassment, but that termination was not justified. The arbitrator based her decision on the grievant’s work history, his physical and mental limitations, and also on the fact that another employee “engaged in a six-month course of sexual harassment directed at a co-worker” and received only a reprimand.
The City first claimed that the failure to uphold termination violates public policy. The court quickly rejected this, pointing out that employers are not required to terminate an employee who sexually harasses another employee, as long as other “appropriate remedial action” is taken. The City next claimed that the award violated public policy in that it ordered the grievant reinstated with no loss of compensation. The City argued that public policy required a sexual harasser to be punished in some way. The Court rejected this argument, noting that “counseling and training” are appropriate remedial responses to sexual harassment, and that the arbitrator’s award did not impede the employer’s right to require such. Again properly noting its limited role in review of an arbitrator, the panel noted that upholding the award “does not suggest that we agree with the arbitrator’s resolution of the matter without loss of compensation or other employment rights, as ‘even our strong disagreement with the result [would] not provide sufficient grounds for vacating the arbitrator’s award.”
The Court’s decision in this case again demonstrates that arbitrator’s awards are subject to great deference on review. Judges properly uphold such awards, even when they disagree with them, as the parties to an arbitration agreement have submitted to the “final and binding” nature of the process.
Read the decision.