Monday, February 13, 2017

You Snooze, You Lose: Union Employee Waives Contractual Right to Arbitrate

The Illinois Supreme Court recently weighed in on whether a union employee could waive arbitration rights set forth in a labor contract.

The Village of Bartonville v. Lopez, concerned a law enforcement officer, Lopez, employed by the Village of Bartonville, who received a complaint for termination from his commanding officer.  Unless otherwise negotiated in a labor contract, the Illinois Municipal Code provides a police officer who has been discharged with an impartial hearing to be commenced within 30 days of the filing of a complaint for termination.  At that time, there was a labor contract in effect between the Village and its police officers which addressed a grievance procedure involving grievance arbitration.  The labor contract’s had a separate section addressing discipline; however that section was silent in regards to the arbitrability of discipline.

Soon after that complaint for termination was filed against Lopez, the Village’s attorney reached out to Lopez’s union representative and proposed a hearing on Lopez’s termination within 30 days after that complaint was filed.  Lopez’s representative rejected that date and, instead, suggested a hearing date that was more than 30 days after the complaint for termination was filed.

The Village’s board of fire and police commissions (the Board) conducted a hearing regarding Lopez’s termination more than 30 days after the date of the complaint.  After a full hearing, the Board issued an order of discharge against Lopez.  Despite objections from Lopez’s union representative that the Board lost jurisdiction since the hearing was past the 30 days set forth by the Illinois Municipal Code, the board, nonetheless, found that it had jurisdiction.

The Municipal Code provides for judicial review of board decisions, however, Lopez did not seek judicial review and instead filed a grievance against the police department.  Lopez argued, in part, that the hearing before the Board was in violation of the labor contract since the labor contract specified a sole and exclusive procedure for resolving any grievances or disputes.

The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately held that Lopez waived his contractual right to arbitrate.  Lopez did not try to stay the hearing and proceed in accordance with the labor contract.   Instead, Lopez’s union representative only questioned the Board’s jurisdiction to conduct the hearing 30 days after the filing of complaint, not because of Lopez’s right to grievance arbitration. Although the Court agreed that when a labor contract is silent on arbitrability of discipline the issue should initially be decided by the arbitrator, Lopez nonetheless waived his right when he participated in the hearing before the Board, acting inconsistently with his right to arbitrate.  Allowing Lopez to act otherwise, would essentially provide him with an opportunity to “pursue both administrative review and arbitration of the same decision”.

The Court also found that Lopez was ultimately barred from seeking arbitration based on the doctrine of res judicata, which bars a person from re-litigating a decision, from a court of competent jurisdiction, which was conducted on the merits.  Lopez could not bring his termination to an arbitrator since the Court held that there was already a full hearing on the merits before a court of competent jurisdiction, the Board.  Furthermore, any arguments Lopez failed to address at the hearing before the Board were subsequently barred.

Although the courts typically disfavor a waiver of arbitration rights, this case serves as a noteworthy example of how union-employees can, nevertheless, waive those rights.  Further, this decision is also significant since it identifies a board of fire and police commissions as a court of competent jurisdiction, with decision-making powers subject to the doctrines of collateral estoppels and res judicata.