ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Before: SEITZ, Chief Judge, ADAMS and GARTH, Circuit Judges
In this appeal we are asked by the Kane Gas Light and Heating Company ("the Company") to vacate an arbitrator's award which, after imposing relatively minimal sanctions, reinstated an employee whom the Company had discharged. Were we to sit as the initial factfinders in determination of whether Alan Pritchard, the employee, should be discharged, we would be hard pressed to justify his re-employment. In fact, however, the scope of our review in this case is an exceedingly narrow one, and employing that standard, we conclude that we are obliged to enforce the arbitrator's award, whatever misgivings we may have about its merits or wisdom. We also decline to disturb the district court's denial of attorney's fees to the Union which prevailed in this action brought by the Company. Thus, we affirm.
The Company is a natural gas public utility providing service to approximately 3200 customers, most of which are residences, in the Boroughs of Kane and Mount Jewett, Pennsylvania. The flow of gas into the Borough of Kane is controlled by a system of valves at the Mount Jewett Regulator Station ("the Station"), for which Alan Pritchard, an employee of the Company for seven years, was responsible. This Station had two principal valves. One was a "by-pass valve," which could be opened to increase the gas flow at times of increased demand for gas; the other was a "main valve," which was used only if it became necessary for testing or repair purposes to shut off the main gas transmission line entirely. (App. at 74a, 281-83a).
On the morning of February 9, 1979, Pritchard opened the by-pass valve on the instructions of the foreman in order to accommodate the need for an increased flow of gas due to the extremely cold weather at the time. Several hours later, the gas pressure had risen back to its normal level and the foreman told Pritchard to close the by-pass valve. When he returned to the Station, however, Pritchard not only shut off the by-pass valve, but he also closed the main valve even though he had not been instructed to do so.*fn1 In closing the main valve, Pritchard effectively cut off gas service to the entire Borough of Kane at a time when the temperature stood at ten degrees below zero (App. at 314a, 323a). Although he failed to inform anyone that he had closed the main valve, Company officials soon noticed that the gas pressure in Kane was dropping, and sent the foreman to the Station to find out why that was happening.*fn2 Upon arriving at the Station, the foreman discovered that the main valve had been closed; he immediately reopened the valve and restored the gas pressure to its proper level. (App. at 179a-85a).
Considering the severity of the weather, Pritchard's actions in closing the main valve could easily have resulted in danger to life as well as substantial property damage. Indeed, as the President of the Company outlined in his testimony at the arbitration hearing:
There was a potential for explosion and real disaster. If it hadn't happened that the meters were being monitored at that specific time carefully, we could have had a whole section of Kane lose gas, and the gaslights would go out, creating the possibility that if gas then went on, there would be explosions and fires, or at least that if they went out, that whole section of Kane in the middle of winter would have had to have been cut off, and all of the appliances then relit, according to procedures, which is a monumental task and a very dangerous one.
In light of the seriousness of Pritchard's action, the Company decided, after reviewing all of the circumstances surrounding the closing of the main valve, that there was proper cause to discharge Pritchard. (App. at 81a-82a). The Company premised its decision to fire Pritchard on Article 1, Section 1 of its Collective Bargaining Agreement with Local 112, which provides:
The Company retains the right to manage its operations and its direction of the work forces, including the right to make rules and regulations; hire; suspend; discharge for proper cause; . . .
(Joint Exhibit A). Pritchard's actions, according to the Company, constituted insubordination, sabotage, and deliberate restriction of output.Under the Company's "Rules of Conduct for Union Employees" (see Joint Exhibit H), each of these violations carried a maximum penalty of discharge for the first offense.
After Pritchard was fired, the Union filed a grievance on his behalf. Subsequently, the President of the Company met with Pritchard and a Union representative to discuss the matter further. At that meeting, however, Pritchard failed to give an explanation as to why he had closed the main valve. After further review, ...