Illinois Supreme Court Determines Arbitration Award Ordering Reinstatement of a Paraprofessional was Binding Because the Award “Drew Its Essence” from the CBA

Mar 19, 2013

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Analyzing the scope and enforceability of an arbitration award, the Illinois Supreme Court in Griggsville-Perry Unit School Dist. No. 4 v. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Bd., et al., 2013 IL 113721 (Feb. 22, 2013), opined that the award was binding on the parties because the arbitrator applied a standard of arbitrariness to the District’s decision to non-renew a paraprofessional, which drew its essence from the negotiated contract language.

Brief Fact Summary

The School District was party to a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with its paraprofessional staff. The CBA did not have a “just cause” termination provision, but did include certain due process procedures if an employee was required to appear before the Board of Education concerning a disciplinary matter.

Paraprofessional, Angela Hires’ (“Hires”), was verbally counseled by the Building Principal about her negative attitude and interaction with students. These concerns were noted in the Principal’s personal notebook and, unbeknownst to Hires, in her personnel file. Ultimately, the Board of Education (the “Board”) voted to non-renew Hires’ employment based upon the Principal’s noted concerns. Hires addressed the Board regarding the non-renewal recommendation.

Brief Summary of Arbitration Award, IELRB and Appellate Court Decisions

The Union filed a grievance asserting that Hires did not have notice or an opportunity to respond to the written notes in her personnel file. The District denied the grievance and it advanced to arbitration. The arbitrator found that the District violated the CBA because the proceeding before the Board was “deficient in the lack of notice, the opportunity to confront and defend, and in the want of a reasoned decision.” The District refused to comply with the arbitrator’s award and the Union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (“IELRB”). The IELRB ruled that the award was binding on the parties because the arbitrator interpreted the contract language and the award drew its essence from the CBA. The District appealed the IELRB’s ruling to the Illinois Appellate Court. In reversing the IELRB, the Appellate Court found that the arbitrator’s decision was “clearly erroneous” because it went beyond the clear contract language and because the arbitrator applied his “own brand of industrial justice” by reading a “just cause” provision into the CBA. The parties appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court’s Unanimous Opinion

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court, thereby confirming the IELRB’s decision that the arbitration award ordering the reinstatement of Hires and back-pay is binding on the parties.

The Court determined that the arbitrator did not read a “just cause” provision into the CBA. Rather, after considering the due process language contained in the CBA and the relevant bargaining history, the Court concluded that the arbitrator properly applied a standard of procedural and substantive arbitrariness to the District’s decision to non-renew Hires in violation of the CBA. Specifically, the arbitrator found that Hires was confronted with conclusory allegations about her performance, which were uninvestigated and unconfirmed, and which she was unaware of and had no opportunity to respond to. Further, the Board had already decided to support the recommendation to non-renew Hires employment prior to her opportunity to address the Board, which essentially rendered the process meaningless. Thus, the arbitrator’s decision, that the District arbitrarily applied the negotiated due process procedures as to Hires’ termination, was proper and drew its essence from the CBA. The Court also found that the arbitrator’s conclusion that Hires could not be an “at will” employee based upon the due process procedures set forth in the CBA “found ample support in case law.”

Significance of the Court’s Opinion

The Court’s decision reminds parties of the scope of an arbitrator’s authority when addressing a contract dispute involving interpretation of a specific contract provision. That said, it is clear that the decision of the arbitrator, IELRB, and Illinois Supreme Court was based on the alleged lack of notice and opportunity to respond to the reasons identified by the District for Hires’ non-renewal and to the documents placed in her personnel file, and the timing of the Board’s initial decision in support of non-renewal. As such, it is important to ensure that fundamental due process is afforded to employees before termination.

If you have any questions about this decision and its ramifications, please contact any of the firm’s Labor & Employment attorneys.

This In Brief was prepared by Catherine R. Locallo, an associate in the firm’s Chicago office.

*This In Brief is in follow-up to our July 24, 2012 publication titled “Illinois Supreme Court to Hear Case Involving Contentious Arbitration Award Ordering Reinstatement of At-Will Paraprofessional.” Publication available at “Illinois Supreme Court to Hear Case Involving Contentious Arbitration Award Ordering Reinstatement of At-Will Paraprofessional.”