Commonwealth Court vacates arbitration award over correction officer discipline

By Angela Underwood | Dec 12, 2017

HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court has vacated an arbitration award regarding the discipline of a corrections officer.

Judge Kevin Brobson delivered a Nov. 17 opinion that vacated an award between petitioners Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Corrections, State and Correctional Institution at Forest (SCI-Forest), against respondent Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association over the reinstatement of corrections officer Barry Robinson after he was discharged due to a disciplinary suspension.

According to the opinion, Robinson began his employment with SCI-Forest in 2004 as a maintenance rover, which entailed supervising inmates who unloaded deliveries and patrolled the entrance and exit to back dock. However, Robinson was temporarily removed from the position after he violated supervisors and sections of the Department’s Code of Ethics.

The opinion states two pre-disciplinary conferences were conducted in 2015 and 2016 in order for Robinson to officially respond to the allegations against him. While Robinson’s conduct was under review, he was simultaneously awarded a new post in the prison yard observation tower. The opinion states that he was terminated before starting the new position.

Robinson sought assistance from the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association in filing a collective bargaining agreement grievance between the department and association. 

The grievance was denied and the matter went to arbitration. By February 2017, the arbitrator restored Robinson's employment following a 30-day suspension, determining though the department had a right reprimand Robinson, but it had no right to fire him.

Brobson noted that on appeal, “the department argues that the arbitrator’s award was not rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement between the department and the association, because the award, in essence, modified the agreement by infringing on the department’s managerial right to direct its own workforce,” according to the Nov. 17 opinion.

Using the essence test, Brobson discussed the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

“Here, it is essentially undisputed by the parties that the first prong of the essence test is met—i.e., the issue of whether the department terminated grievant’s employment for just cause is within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement,” Brobson wrote in the Nov. 17 opinion, adding he and Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judge Patricia McCullough were left to determine if arbitrator's award was reasonably derived from the collective bargaining agreement.

“Regarding the second prong of the essence test, we agree with the association that, within the context of an undefined just cause provision, an award does not violate the essence test by reducing a termination to a suspension and reinstatement, despite the arbitrator finding that the grievant committed the acts for which he was terminated,” Brobson wrote.

Though Brobson noted the panel of judges agreed with the association that “the arbitrator did not violate the essence test,” the panel “cannot say that the arbitrator’s award is rationally derived from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement,” according to the Nov. 17 opinion.

“The arbitrator’s award did not draw its essence from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and, therefore, fails under the essence test,” Brobson wrote.

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