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MIFFLINBURG AREA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION v. MIFFLINBURG AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT (08/01/88)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: August 1, 1988.

MIFFLINBURG AREA EDUCATION ASSOCIATION, PSEA/NEA AND JAMES E. MCMENAMIN, APPELLANTS
v.
MIFFLINBURG AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Union County in the case of Mifflinburg Area School District v. Mifflinburg Area Education Association, PSEA/NEA, and James E. McMenamin, No. 615, 1985.

COUNSEL

William A. Hebe, Spencer, Gleason & Hebe, for appellants.

Stephen S. Russell, Pennsylvania School Boards Association, for appellee.

Judges Doyle, Palladino, and Smith, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Palladino. Judge Smith dissents.

Author: Palladino

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 329]

Mifflinburg Area Education Association, PSEA/NEA (Appellant) and James E. McMenamin (Grievant) appeal an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Union County (trial court) vacating an arbitrator's award rendered pursuant to a grievance filed by Appellant against Mifflinburg Area School District (Appellee). For the reasons set forth below, we reverse and reinstate the award of the arbitrator.

Appellant and Appellee were parties to a collective bargaining agreement effective from July 1, 1981 to June 30, 1984. Grievant was employed as a teacher by Appellee for the 1982-1983 school year. Grievant did not have tenure and was thus considered a temporary employee by Appellee. During the course of the school year, Grievant was observed and evaluated by Appellee. By letter dated June 23, 1983, Grievant was advised that his performance was being rated "unsatisfactory" and that his employment would be terminated at the conclusion of the school year.

On June 27, 1983, Grievant filed a grievance seeking to have the issue of his termination arbitrated under the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement.*fn1

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 330]

Appellee initially refused to arbitrate, claiming that the agreement did not apply to non-tenured teachers and/or that dismissal was not arbitrable. Grievant and Appellant then filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, seeking to compel arbitration. Grievant also filed an action in mandamus in the trial court, seeking reinstatement to his position.

The parties subsequently entered into an agreement to arbitrate.*fn2 However, Appellee did not agree to waive the issue of arbitrability. As a result, the arbitrator bifurcated the issues of arbitrability and the merits of Grievant's claim. Hearings were then held on the arbitrability issue. By decision dated October 24, 1985, the arbitrator found that the grievance was arbitrable. The arbitrator determined that the collective bargaining agreement applied to both tenured and non-tenured teachers and that the "just cause" provision of the agreement encompassed the action of dismissal.*fn3

Appellee filed a petition with the trial court requesting that the arbitrator's award be vacated. Appellee argued that the award did not draw its essence from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and asserted that the "just cause" provision did not include dismissal.*fn4

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 331]

Appellee also contended that non-tenured teachers were not covered by the agreement.

The trial court concluded that the arbitrator properly determined that the collective bargaining agreement applied to both tenured and non-tenured teachers. However, the trial court vacated the award on the ground that dismissal was not arbitrable. The trial court concluded that dismissal was not subsumed within the term "discipline" as used in the just cause provision. Appellee asserts that the trial court's decision was proper, arguing that if the parties had intended to arbitrate dismissals, they would have expressly included such a provision in the collective bargaining agreement.*fn5

On appeal to this court, Appellant and Grievant contend that the trial court erred in vacating the award of the arbitrator and assert that dismissal is arbitrable under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Appellee does not appeal that portion of the trial court's decision which holds that the agreement governs both tenured and non-tenured teachers.

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 332]

We note that the scope of review of an arbitrator's decision is limited and the decision will not be overturned if it draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement. Leechburg Area School District v. Dale, 492 Pa. 515, 424 A.2d 1309 (1981). The Supreme Court in Leechburg held that the "essence test" requires a determination of whether the terms of the collective bargaining agreement encompass the subject matter of the dispute. If the subject matter of the dispute is encompassed within those terms, the validity of the arbitrator's decision is not a proper matter for judicial review. Id. at 520-21, 424 A.2d at 1312-13. See Wilkes-Barre Educational Association v. Wilkes-Barre Area School District, 113 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 492, 538 A.2d 81 (1988).

In order to determine whether an arbitrator's award meets the essence test, the award must be examined in light of the language of the collective bargaining agreement, its context, and any other indicia of the parties' intention. McKeesport Area School District v. McKeesport Area Education Association, 56 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 224, 424 A.2d 979 (1981). Further, the broad judicial deference given to arbitrators' decisions applies with equal force to determinations regarding the arbitrability of the subject matter of a grievance. Ridley School District v. Ridley Education Association, 84 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 117, 479 A.2d 641 (1984).

In this case, the arbitrator noted that the Article XXIII "just cause" provision did not specifically mention dismissal. However, the arbitrator found that "dismissal" was subsumed within the term "discipline" in that provision. The arbitrator determined that dismissal was arbitrable because, in defining "just cause," the parties adopted the causes for dismissal from section 1122 of the Public School Code of 1949 (School Code)*fn6 and incorporated

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 333]

    them into the bargaining agreement. The arbitrator reasoned that this evidenced the parties' intention that dismissal under the collective bargaining agreement could be effected for the same offenses recognized by the School Code. Arbitrator's Award at 13. Finally, the arbitrator also noted that the collective bargaining agreement did not otherwise address dismissal or discharge.

Central to the arbitrator's award is his analysis of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Neshaminy Federation of Teachers v. Neshaminy School District, 501 Pa. 534, 462 A.2d 629 (1983). In Neshaminy, the Supreme Court held that the term "discipline," as used in a collective bargaining agreement prohibiting the discipline of professional employees without just cause, was not intended by the parties to include dismissal.*fn7 The collective bargaining agreement in Neshaminy contained a separate provision pertaining to dismissal.

The arbitrator distinguished Neshaminy and noted that in this case, dismissal was not addressed by any of the other clauses in the collective bargaining agreement. Arbitrator's Award at 10. Further, the arbitrator in the instant case stated that part of the holding in Neshaminy was based upon the court's tracing of the interplay between the collective bargaining agreement and the School Code. At the time Neshaminy was decided, the School Code provided the exclusive procedures by which dismissal could be challenged. Thus, the court in Neshaminy concluded that to interpret the term "discipline" to include "dismissal" would violate the School Code and require the parties to perform an illegal

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 334]

    act in contravention of section 703 of PERA, 43 P.S. ยง 1101.703.*fn8

In vacating the award of the arbitrator, the trial court found Neshaminy controlling. The trial court concluded that the just cause language in this case was substantially similar to the language which the court was interpreting in Neshaminy. Further, the trial court stated that the parties' intent should be ascertained by reference to Neshaminy's discussion of the legality of grieving a dismissal. The trial court reasoned that because the inclusion of "dismissal" in a grievance provision would have been illegal at the time the parties negotiated and executed the collective bargaining agreement in this case, the parties therefore did not intend the term "discipline" to encompass "dismissal." Thus, the trial court opined that even though the School Code was subsequently amended to permit the grievance of dismissals, such amendment could not alter the parties' intent when they entered into the agreement.

However, as noted above, the parties have bargained for the arbitrator's interpretation of a collective bargaining

[ 118 Pa. Commw. Page 335]

    agreement and great deference is to be accorded that interpretation, including that regarding the arbitrability of the subject matter of a dispute. Ridley. In this case, we hold that the arbitrator's award draws its essence from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The fact that the arbitrator may have failed to properly perceive the question presented or erroneously resolved it does not provide justification for judicial interference. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit Education Association v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit No. 16, 74 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 248, 459 A.2d 889 (1983). So long as the arbitrator's interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement was reasonable, this court will not intrude into the domain of the arbitrator simply because its interpretation of the agreement might differ from that of the arbitrator. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, District Council 87 v. Luzerne County 115 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 604, 540 A.2d 1002 (1988).

Because the arbitrator's award draws its essence from the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the trial court erred in vacating the award.

Accordingly, we reverse and reinstate the award of the arbitrator.

Order

And Now, August 1, 1988, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Union County in the above-captioned matter is reversed and the award of the arbitrator is reinstated.

Judge Smith dissents.

Disposition

Reversed.


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