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Pocono Medical Center v. Seiu Healthcare Pennsylvania

July 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Munley)


Before the court are the parties' motions for summary judgment. Having been fully briefed, the matters are ripe for disposition.


This case arises from a dispute between the parties over an arbitration award. Plaintiff Pocono Medical Center ("PMC") and Defendant SEIU Healthcare are parties to a collective bargaining agreement. (Plaintiff's Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 21) (hereinafter "Plaintiff's Statement") at ¶ 1). That agreement contains a grievance procedure and an arbitration provision. (Id.). The grievance procedure and arbitration provision cover the termination of employment of members of the bargaining unit the defendant represents. (Id. at ¶ 2).

Darlene Cullen-Zen was a member of that bargaining unit. (Id. at ¶ 3). On or about March 23, 2009, plaintiff terminated Cullen-Zen's employment for violating plaintiff's workplace violence policy and procedures. (Id. at ¶ 4). Defendant SEIU Healthcare filed a grievance on Cullen-Zen's behalf on March 23, 2009. (Id. at ¶ 5). The parties could not resolve this grievance, and they submitted the matter to arbitration. (Id. at ¶ 6). Edward J. O'Connell served as the arbitrator. (Id. at ¶ 7).

Arbitrator O'Connell held a hearing on December 18, 2009. (Id. at ¶ 7). O'Connell issued an award on May 24, 2010. (Id. at ¶ 8). This award sustained defendant's grievance. (Id.). The award also converted Cullen-Zen's termination into a disciplinary suspension running until the receipt of the award. (Id.). The arbitrator's decision described the contractual provisions and workplace policies that are the subject of the dispute here. (Joint Appendix (Doc. 18) at 3-4). Next, the arbitrator described the incident that led to discipline against Cullen-Zell. (Id. at 5). Cullen-Zell had participated in a discussion among several of her co-workers in the PMC phlebotomy department about a conflict in the workplace. (Id.). When one of these co-workers attempted to leave the room, the arbitrator found, Cullen-Zell made physical contact with her and used language the co-worker found threatening. (Id. at 12).

PMC argued that this behavior constituted a violation of the Center's "zero tolerance" policy for workplace violence, and justified Cullen-Zell's termination. The arbitrator found, however, that reliance on the zero tolerance policy was "unavailing." (Id. at 12). The arbitrator pointed to Article 6.1 of the employment agreement, which provides PMC the right to discharge any employee for just cause. (Id. at 13). Such a right to firing for just cause, the arbitrator pointed out, "mandates that discipline is to be imposed on a corrective basis." (Id.). The discipline described in Article 6.1 is "corrective and punitive," but Article 6.2 provides that discipline "may, in appropriate circumstances, be progressive." (Id.). This concept of progressive discipline was one with which the parties who negotiated the contract "were conversant." (Id.).

The arbitrator noted that Cullen-Zell had not previously faced any discipline at the workplace. (Id.). Though the arbitrator acknowledged PMC"s "legitimate concerns about workplace violence" and noted that previous incidents of violence had resulted in termination, he also found that Cullen-Zell's grievance was "a first offense case in a collective bargaining setting." (Id.). Thus, "the severity of the punishment must meet the contractual just cause standard identified in Article 6, which refers to application of the principle of 'corrective' and 'progressive' discipline." (Id.). The arbitrator agreed that "there may be occasions when the conduct at issue is so egregious that immediate discharge might be appropriate under the contractual standards even without the application of progressive discipline." (Id.). The instant matter--which involved a contentious situation among co-workers in a confined space where emotions ran high--did not amount to such a situation. (Id.). The arbitrator found that Cullen-Zell's "conduct was not so outrageous that progressive discipline could be dispensed with and immediate discharge imposed." (Id.).

After rejecting Cullen-Zell's claim that her termination was a result of PMC's anti-union animus, the arbitrator concluded that she was entitled to reinstatement. He noted that "[e]xcept in rare cases, every employee has a right to be disciplined on a corrective or progressive basis where a contractual just cause provision exists." (Id. at 14). That right grows when the agreement references corrective action and progressive discipline, as the agreement here does. (Id.). Thus, even though PMC had a "valid interest" in enforcing the zero-tolerance policy against an employee whose "culpability has been established," the arbitrator found that Cullen-Zell's "termination must be set aside as excessive and, consequently, as lacking just cause grounds." (Id.).

Thereafter, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court seeking to vacate the award. (Id. at ¶ 9). Plaintiff argues that the arbitrator acted beyond the scope of his authority under the labor contract. (Id. at ¶ 9). The arbitrator, plaintiff alleges, improperly substituted his own judgment for the plaintiff's, adding and varying terms of the labor contract. (Id.). The arbitrator also, plaintiff contends, issued an award that did not draw its essence from the labor contract. (Id.). The defendant disputes these conclusions about the arbitration award. (Defendant's Counterstatement of Material Facts (Doc. 24)). The parties compiled a joint appendix containing the record before the arbitrator, which they have submitted to this court. (Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 11).

After the parties compiled this joint appendix, they filed the instant motions for summary judgment and submitted briefs to the court, bringing the case to its present posture.


Plaintiff brings the complaint pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 185. As such, the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under ...

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