Arbitrator’s Interpretation of Contract, Even If Wrong, Must Be Upheld

In another case involving the Suffolk County Sheriff, Sheriff of Suffolk County v. AFSCME Council 93 (Feb. 13, 2007), the Massachusetts Appeals Court rejected another effort to void a public employer’s attack on an arbitrator’s award of reinstatement.
This case dealt with a corrections officer terminated for excessive sick leave – sick leave, incidentally, caused by a work-related injury (restraining an unruly prisoner). The arbitrator interpreted the sick leave policy and found that, contrary to the Sheriff’s claims, the absences were not “undocumented” as the officer provided supporting medical documentation. The arbitrator ordered reinstatement.

The Sheriff appealed under the principle that an arbitrator cannot ignore the contract’s plain language. In essence, the arbitrator claimed that an erroneous interpretation is tantamount to ignoring contract language. The Appeals Court rejected this contorted logic.

In this case, there is no doubt that the arbitrator focused on the correct language in the [policy], but his interpretation of that language, that an employee who lacked sufficient accrued sick leave could avoid being charged with an "undocumented" sick day by providing appropriate medical documentation, may have been incorrect. The judge essentially ruled that the arbitrator’s interpretation was erroneous. In short, the arbitrator may simply have got it wrong. The sheriff’s argument, therefore, boils down to a claim that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by erroneously interpreting the contract provision. If that were the test for vacating an arbitration award, G. L. c. 150C, § 11 … would be drained of any meaning, so that any and all awards would be vulnerable to attack, merely on a complaint by a party who claims error on the part of an arbitrator in interpreting the particular contract language at hand. The settled rule, however, is that a court has "no business overruling an arbitrator because [it] give[s] a contract a different interpretation."

In a world guided by logic, this decision should caution public employers from frivolously challenging arbitration losses. Of course, if only all public employers inhabited such a world.

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