Arbitrator Rejects Frivolous Bid by Watertown to Prevent Arbitration for Terminated Fire Fighter

March 19, 2021

"Final and binding arbitration" is a fundamental and uniform component of collective bargaining agreements.It That guarantees that disputes can be resolved relatively quickly and without tying up the parties in multiple appeals. Yet employers, with alarming frequency, defy these written promises by arguing that arbitrators lack authority to resolve disputes about terms of the collective bargaining agreement. A neutral arbitrator soundly rejected the Town of Watertown's claim that the Union cannot enforce the CBA's "just cause" protections for firefighters.

Massachusetts courts have set a very high bar for an employer to show that an arbitrator lacks jurisdiction to settle contract term disputes. An arbitrator has authority, unless the employer can show either "(1) the existence of an express provision excluding the grievance from arbitration or (2) the ‘most forceful evidence’ of a purpose to exclude the claim." Under this high standard, the Town's argument that "just cause" is enforceable through arbitration was frivolous. The CBA contained two references to "just cause" protections, including one that the parties added to the grievance/arbitration article. While the CBA acknowledged that employees have civil service rights and thus can appeal discipline to the Civil Service Commission, the CBA did not expressly excuse discipline cases from arbitration. The Town thus had to argue that the parties intended to exclude discipline cases from arbitration, even though the grievance/arbitration article itself entitled employees to just cause protections on discipline.

While the Union, represented here by Attorney Bryant, prevailed in this portion of the case and can proceed directly to the merits, the Town's frivolous argument nonetheless resulted in unnecessary delay and expenses.