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International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 53 v. City of Independence

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

September 3, 2019

INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS LOCAL UNION NO. 53, Respondent,
v.
THE CITY OF INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable James F. Kanatzar, Judge

          Before: Gary D. Witt, Presiding Judge, Edward R. Ardini, and Thomas N. Chapman, Judges

          THOMAS N. CHAPMAN, JUDGE

         The City of Independence, Missouri (City) fired Ryan Saunders (Saunders) following a workplace incident. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 53 (Local 53) filed a grievance on Saunders's behalf, and the grievance proceeded to arbitration in the manner agreed upon in the parties' collective bargaining agreement. The arbitrator reduced Saunders's punishment and conditionally reinstated his employment, subject to the arbitrator's continued supervision. Citing a provision in the parties' collective bargaining agreement, the City Manager set aside the arbitrator's award. Local 53 sued for breach of the collective bargaining agreement. The circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Local 53, and ordered the City to comply with the arbitrator's award (but eliminated continued supervision by the arbitrator). The City filed its timely appeal. We affirm.

         Procedural Summary

         Ryan Saunders (Saunders) had been employed by the City of Independence, Missouri (City), since 2006, as an equipment operator. Saunders's employment was governed by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) entered into between the City and The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union No. 53 (Local 53). On December 17, 2016, Saunders directed inappropriate language at his supervisor; and was later discharged from his employment as a result of his conduct on that date.

         Pursuant to the CBA, Local 53 filed a grievance protesting Saunders's discharge, and the matter proceeded through the grievance procedure to arbitration. The parties were represented by counsel and presented testimony and other documentary evidence at the arbitration hearing. In her award the arbitrator concluded that Saunders's misconduct did not constitute "just cause" for his discharge. The arbitrator's award conditionally reinstated Saunders, required his participation in an employee assistance program, and subjected the parties to the arbitrator's supervision to ensure that the terms of reinstatement were met.

         Under a provision of the CBA, the arbitrator's award is subject to review by the City Manager in certain limited circumstances. Relying upon the authority granted by this provision, the City Manager rejected the arbitrator's award and upheld the order terminating Saunders's employment. The City Manager found that the arbitrator's award was contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence and a "misinterpretation of the law." The arbitration proceedings were not transcribed, and the City Manager was not present for the entire arbitration hearing.[1] Local 53 filed suit in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, alleging that the City breached the CBA by rejecting the award of the arbitrator. The circuit court entered summary judgment in favor of Local 53 and ordered the City to comply with the arbitration award to conditionally reinstate Saunders; but found that the arbitrator was without authority to supervise compliance with the award. The City appeals. We affirm.

         Factual History

         At the time of his discharge, Saunders was working for the City as a heavy equipment operator in the City's Water Pollution Control Department, and had been employed by the City since 2006. Saunders, along with other employees of the City's Water Pollution Control Department, were allowed to elect to work additional hours as snow plow drivers for the City's Public Works Department. On December 17, 2016, Saunders was working as a snow removal driver; and was involved in a motor vehicle accident when his truck slid on an icy road and collided with a utility pole, downing attached power lines. Saunders called his supervisor to advise him of the accident and to warn him that electrical lines were on the road. Saunders stayed at the scene of the accident because he felt it was unsafe to leave with the power lines strewn across the road.

         Saunders had some knowledge of the area where the accident occurred, as he had previously been shot in the same neighborhood. While he was awaiting assistance from the City, several men approached his vehicle. Saunders again called his supervisor and apparently stated that "it would not be his fault if 'things got physical.'" Saunders asked his supervisor for "back up," a request which his supervisor misunderstood to mean "traffic back-up." Saunders then told the men to return to their vehicles, but one of the men continued to approach; and in the course of the ensuing confrontation, Saunders and the other man slipped and fell to the ground.

         While the supervisor had told Saunders that he was on his way to assist him with traffic cones and road blocks, he experienced delays while addressing other traffic incidents and never made it to the scene of Saunders's accident. Angered by the City's handling of the accident, Saunders made statements to his supervisor that were disrespectful and profane, but none which directly threatened violence toward his supervisor or anyone else.[2] Several employees were concerned that a physical confrontation might ensue. Saunders was then told he was "done for the day" and was directed to leave the workplace. The City alleged that Saunders was notified (via text message) to report for work the following day, and that he failed to appear. Saunders denied ever receiving the alleged text message.[3]

         After an investigation by the City and two pre-disciplinary hearings, the City terminated Saunders's employment citing "insubordination, failure to perform assigned duties, abuse/violence, acts detrimental to the public interest, fighting with a citizen, and leaving a City vehicle unsecured" as reasons for his firing.

         The parties' CBA provides that the City has the right to discharge its employees for "just cause." CBA, Art. 3, Section 3.2. The CBA further provides for a "grievance procedure" when Local 53 disagrees with the City's "application or interpretation of the terms and provisions of [the CBA]." CBA, Art. 15, Section 15.1. Following a multi-step appeals process, the grievance proceeds to arbitration. The arbitrator's award is subject to limited review by the City Manager as follows:

(f) Decisions of the arbitrator regarding [sic] shall be subject to review by the City Manager. Where the arbitrator's decision resolves issues of fact, the City Manager is not authorized to substitute his or her own judgment for the judgment of the arbitrator if the arbitrator's findings of fact are supported by competent and substantial evidence. The City Manager is authorized to reject the arbitrators [sic] decision only when the arbitrator's findings of fact and decision based thereon are clearly contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence viewed in its entirety, together with all legitimate inferences which may be reasonably drawn from that evidence, and in the light most favorable to the findings of fact and decision of the arbitrator based thereon. Where the arbitrator's decision is based upon an application or interpretation of law, the City Manager may review the award to determine if it is in violation of constitutional provisions; if it is for any reason unauthorized by law, or if it is made upon unlawful procedure without a fair hearing. The City Manager can exercise his or her own judgment on these matters after receiving advice from the City Counselor or an authorized designee. Notwithstanding any of the foregoing, the City Manager may reject the decision I [sic] of the arbitrator if such rejection results in a disposition more favorable to the bargaining unit member than the decision of the arbitrator.

CBA, Art. 15, Section 15.3, Step 4(B)(2)(f).

         In this matter, Local 53 filed a grievance contesting Saunders's discharge, which proceeded through the grievance procedure to arbitration. An evidentiary hearing was held, and the arbitrator issued her award finding that the City did not have "just cause" to fire Saunders and conditionally reinstating his employment (without back pay) subject to his successful completion of an employee assistance program. Following his completion of the program, the "conditional" element of his reinstatement was to be removed. The ...


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