Just Cause For Discipline

         Many employee handbooks and most collective bargaining agreements require some type of legitimate reason, generally defined as “just cause,” before an employee may be disciplined. But what is “just cause” for discipline?Is it what an arbitrator decides it is, or do the courts determine what is meant when a collective bargaining agreement says that an employer may discipline employees only for “just cause.”A case recently decided by the Ohio Supreme Court supplies the answer.

         In May, 2002, the Summit County Children Services Board terminated one of its employees who was a member of the Communication Workers of America, Local 4546.The terms and conditions of employment for the employee were established by a collective bargaining agreement, which provided, among other things, that disciplinary actions could only be for “good cause.”Three general charges were made against the employee in connection with her termination.First, she was charged with leaving the premises without notice to or permission from her supervisor.Second, the Board alleged that she had falsified her time card.Third, the Board alleged that she had falsified agency records.

          Pursuant to the terms of the agreement between the Board and the CWA, the employee filed a grievance, which was submitted to binding arbitration.On September 10, 2004, the Arbitrator issued his award, finding that there was not good cause for discharge and instead imposing a seven day suspension.

          The Arbitrator first found, as to the charge that the employee had left the premises without notice to or permission from the supervisor, that the actual practice in the agency was that employees could leave the premises without notifying or receiving permission from their supervisor.Therefore, the employee was not on notice that her conduct was inappropriate.Accordingly, no disciplinary action could be based on the charge that the employee had left the premises without notice to or permission from her supervisor.

          As to the second charge, the Arbitrator found that the employee had admitted claiming time on her time card that she had not worked, but the Arbitrator also found that the punishment (discharge) did not fit the crime.Instead, the Arbitrator ruled that a seven-day suspension was appropriate under the principles of progressive discipline.

          As to the third charge, dealing with alleged falsification of records, the Arbitrator found that the employee had followed past practice on completing records and that there were no ironclad procedural rules as to how these records should have been completed.The Arbitrator held that the employee should not be disciplined for failing to follow a rule which had not been clearly communicated to her.

          Having found that there were no grounds for discipline under two of the three charges, and that progressive discipline principles dictated that termination was inappropriate for the charge of falsifying her time card, the Arbitrator overturned the termination and imposed a seven-day suspension.In so doing the Arbitrator relied upon the traditional seven tests for just cause established by other arbitrators, particularly the requirement that the degree of discipline administered by the employer must be reasonably related to (1) the seriousness of the employee’s proven offense and (2) the record of the employee in his service with the employer.

          The Summit County Children Services Board filed an action in the Court of Common Pleas, which vacated the Arbitrator’s award.The Summit County Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the lower court.The Court of Appeals recognized that the collective bargaining agreement required “good cause” for disciplinary action but that the agreement itself did not define the term “good cause.”The Court of Appeals held that the Arbitrator relied on a definition of “good cause” which was supposedly “outside the terms” of the collective bargaining agreement.In other words, the Arbitrator could not rely upon the definition of cause as established by numerous other arbitrators; instead, the arbitrator was supposed to define cause as interpreted by the Court (and apparently the Court’s interpretation left no room for consideration of factors such as the seriousness of the employee’s offense or his/her record of service with the employer).

          If allowed to stand, the Court of Appeals ruling would have greatly hampered the arbitration of many cases.Under the Court of Appeals’ rationale, employers do not have to apply progressive discipline, an employee’s length of service and good work record are irrelevant, and procedural errors in the imposition of the discipline cannot be used to reverse or modify the discipline.Employers would argue that all they have to prove is whether the employee committed the alleged offense.If this is proven, then arbitrators could not overturn or modify the discipline.

          The Court of Appeals ruling did not stand.In a unanimous decision, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed the lower court.In Communication Workers Of America, Local 4546, v. SummitCounty Children Services, the Ohio Supreme Court held that an arbitrator, in determining whether there was just cause to discipline an employee, can consider the traditional elements of just cause.Thus, an arbitrator can base his award on elements such as whether the degree or severity of discipline was reasonably related to the seriousness of the offense (progressive discipline) and/or the prior work record of the employee.Just cause still lives in Ohio!