These summaries of case decisions are intended for informational purposes only. They are not intended to be interpretations of the law, nor do they encompass the subtleties of each case. Therefore, reference to the original text is indispensable.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Massachusetts Highway Department v. Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists

Massachusetts Appeals Court – February 23, 2012

Facts: According to a collective bargaining agreement (agreement) between the Massachusetts Highway Department (MHD) and members of Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists (MOSES), "[A]ny dispute concerning the application or interpretation of the terms” of the agreement were subject to a four-step grievance procedure: Step (1) involved an immediate supervisor; step (2) an agency head; step (3) the Commonwealth's Human Resources Department (HRD); and step (4) arbitration. Each step had deadlines for filing the grievance or the appeal, and the first three had deadlines for decisions. The agreement also states that "[t]he arbitrator [had] no power to add to, subtract from, or modify any provision of [the] Agreement or to issue any decision or award inconsistent with applicable law. The decision or award of the arbitrator [was] final and binding in accordance with [G. L. c.] 150C."

Pursuant to the agreement, Arbitrators separately awarded two engineers employed by MHD, additional compensation for the periods of time that they performed work assigned to employees at higher pay grades. However, a Superior Court Judge found that the arbitrators in both cases had exceeded their authority by ignoring provisions in the agreement that contained deadlines for filing grievances. He also asserted that the arbitrators in one case impermissibly "modified the plain language" of the agreement insofar as filing deadlines were concerned and, in the process, "went beyond what [G. L. c.] 150C and Article 23A ever contemplated. MOSES, the exclusive bargaining agent for MHD engineers, appeals the order, claiming that the judge's rulings invaded an area reserved for the arbitrators.
Issue: Whether the arbitrators exceeded their authority by inferring relief beyond the scope of the agreement.

No. As long as the arbitrator’s award does not cross beyond the boundaries to which the parties bound themselves and is not the product of the arbitrator's own "idiosyncratic brand of workplace justice," the award will be upheld. In the end, it is "the arbitrator's interpretation of the bargained-for language that the [parties] . . . agreed to accept, not the interpretation by a court acting upon a subsequent application under G. L. c. 150C, § 11." Sheriff of Suffolk County v. AFSCME Council 93, Local 419, 68 Mass. App. Ct. 222, 226-227 (2007). "When parties agree to arbitrate a dispute, courts accord their election great weight. The strong public policy favoring arbitration requires us to uphold an arbitrator's decision even where it is wrong on the facts or the law, and whether it is wise or foolish, clear or ambiguous." Boston v. Boston Police Patrolmen's Assn., 443 Mass. 813, 818 (2005). Reversed. (HG)