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School District of Philadelphia v. Commonwealth Association of School Administrators

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

April 25, 2017

School District of Philadelphia
Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, Appellant

          Argued: February 7, 2017




         The Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502 (Association), appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court), granting School District of Philadelphia's (District) petition to vacate an arbitration award. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

         The facts underlying this matter are not in dispute. The Association is a labor union that represents school principals and other administrators. The Association brings the instant appeal on behalf of Marla Travis-Curtis (Travis-Curtis), a former principal of multiple schools located in the District.

         Travis-Curtis was first hired by the District as a substitute teacher in 1985. She was hired as a special education teacher at Bok High School in 1991. She held several other positions within the District, including a counselor at Overbrook High School, an assistant principal at Finletter Elementary School, an assistant principal at Woodrow Wilson Middle School from 2002 to 2003, and a principal at Lamberton Elementary in 2003. The District appointed her as principal of Lamberton High School in 2011, where she served until 2013 when Lamberton High School closed permanently. From 2003 until 2013, she served as principal for both Lamberton High and Elementary Schools, and she continued as principal of Lamberton Elementary School[1] until her employment was terminated in 2015.

         Pennsylvania requires every school district to administer to its students a standardized examination called the Pennsylvania System School Assessment (PSSA). The PSSA measures students' competency in various academic subjects and is also used to rate faculties, administrators, schools, and districts based on the student bodies' performance. While principal at Lamberton, Travis-Curtis implemented stringent test security policies. Specially trained test coordinators deposited blank tests into a locked room, delivered the tests to classrooms immediately prior to testing, then retrieved the tests, sealed them, and returned them to the locked room until they could be sent out to be graded.

         In 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (Department) conducted a statistical analysis which revealed a high number of instances where an incorrect answer on a standardized test was erased and the correct answer was marked instead, referred to in the analysis as "beneficial erasures." The Department instructed the District to investigate several of the identified schools, including Lamberton. Based on its investigation, the District concluded that the beneficial erasures at several schools, including Lamberton, were the result of improper conduct. Specifically, the investigation determined that school employees altered the tests in an attempt to bolster the school's overall performance on the PSSA. The District alleged that Travis-Curtis, who was the principal of Lamberton during the time covered by the analysis, actively participated in the improper conduct or knowingly allowed the conduct to continue. Alternatively, the District alleged that, if Travis-Curtis was unaware, she acted negligently by failing to discover and prevent such misconduct. On January 15, 2014, the District terminated Travis-Curtis' employment based on these allegations.

         Effective September 1, 2013, the Association and the District entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which set forth the terms and conditions of employment for administrators employed by the District. Article 2, Section 2.1 of the CBA states that the District "shall retain the sole right to hire, discipline or discharge for cause, lay off, transfer and assign Administrators." (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 22a.) The Association filed a grievance pursuant to Article 5 of the CBA. Article 5 of the CBA defines a grievance as "a claim of a violation of any specific provision of this Agreement or of any Personnel Policy or Regulation which has been or shall be adopted by the [District]." (R.R. at 27a.)

         Pursuant to the procedures set forth in the CBA, the Association filed a grievance on January 23, 2014, contesting the District's decision to terminate Travis-Curtis' employment. A single Arbitrator held hearings on November 18, 2014, February 20, 2015, March 20, 2015, and April 8, 2015.

         The parties stipulated to this statement of the issue before the arbitrator: "[w]as [Travis-Curtis] terminated for just cause? If not, what shall the remedy be?" (R.R. at 17a.) The Arbitrator issued his decision and award (Award) on August 12, 2015. The Arbitrator concluded that statistical evidence indicated that systematic cheating was occurring while Travis-Curtis was principal at Lamberton. The Arbitrator further concluded that, after the District implemented more stringent testing security measures in 2012, Lamberton students' test scores dropped significantly, more than could be expected based on other factors such as decreased funding or resources. Additionally, the Arbitrator noted that the analysis showed that cheating occurred in some, but not all, classrooms. The Arbitrator concluded that there was no credible evidence that Travis-Curtis had knowledge of or participated in the cheating. He determined, however, that Travis-Curtis' testing security procedures were insufficient and that she was liable as the top administrator at the school. Accordingly, the Arbitrator found that "the penalty of termination must be mitigated" and reduced the discipline to a 30-day unpaid suspension and a demotion to assistant principal. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 58a).

         The District filed in the trial court a petition to vacate the Award, and the Association filed its answer and new matter, seeking confirmation of the Award. Before the trial court, the District argued that the Award cannot logically flow from the provisions of the CBA and that the Award violates public policy by reinstating, albeit in a lower position, an administrator involved in a cheating scandal. The trial court concluded that the Award was not rationally derived from the CBA because the Arbitrator made the factual determination that Travis-Curtis committed a terminable offense, i.e. neglected her supervisory duties as principal, yet failed to recognize the explicit language of the CBA granting the District "sole discretion" to determine the appropriate level of discipline. (Trial court op. at 4.) By order dated January 15, 2016, the trial court granted the District's petition and vacated the Arbitrator's Award. The trial court reasoned that the Arbitrator's decision was based on a "just cause" analysis, which was not supported by any provision of the CBA, and that the decision to reinstate Travis-Curtis, even to a lesser position, violated a clear public policy against school administrators condoning cheating. The Association appealed the trial court's order to this Court.

         On appeal, the Association argues that the trial court erred in vacating the Award for three reasons: (1) the trial court invaded the province of the Arbitrator by concluding that he incorrectly applied a "just cause" analysis; (2) the trial court incorrectly concluded that the Arbitrator exceeded his authority by modifying the discipline imposed by the District; and (3) the trial court erred in determining that the Award violated public policy.

         Although our Supreme Court has held that an arbitrator's interpretation of a CBA should be given great deference, the arbitrator's decision must be rationally derived from the terms of the CBA. Office of the Attorney General v. Council 13, Am. Fed'n of State, Cnty. and Mun. Emps., AFL-CIO , 844 A.2d 1217, 1222 (Pa. 2004) (OAG). We have previously explained the "essence test" used to determine whether an arbitrator's Award is rationally related to the terms of the CBA, as follows:

As stated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Westmoreland Intermediate Unit # 7 v. Westmoreland Intermediate Unit # 7 Classroom Assistants Educational Support Personnel Association, PSEA/NEA, 939 A.2d 855 (Pa. 2007), the essence test was derived from the United States Supreme Court's decision in United Steelworkers v. Enterprise Wheel & Car Corp., 363 U.S. 593 (1960), wherein, the Court held: An arbitrator is confined to interpretation and application of the collective bargaining agreement; he does not sit to dispense his own brand of industrial justice. He may, of course, look for guidance from many sources, yet his award is legitimate only so long as it draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement.
The Westmoreland Court further explained:
Recently . . . we reaffirmed the essence test and set forth a clear two-prong approach to judicial review of grievance arbitration awards: First, the court shall determine if the issue as properly defined is within the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Second, if the issue is embraced by the agreement, and thus, appropriately before the arbitrator, the arbitrator's award will be upheld if the arbitrator's interpretation can rationally be derived from the collective bargaining agreement.

Bethel Park Sch. Dist. v. Bethel Park Fed'n of Teachers, Local 1607, 55 A.3d 154, 157 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012) (internal quotations omitted), appeal denied, 62 A.3d 380 (Pa. 2013).[2]

         We first address the Association's argument that the trial court inappropriately intruded upon the domain of the Arbitrator by rejecting his interpretation of "cause" under the CBA. To the extent that the trial court held that the Arbitrator erroneously interpreted the definition of "cause" contained in Article 2.1 of the CBA, the trial court clearly erred. It is a foundational principle of arbitration that a court may not substitute its own judgment for that of the arbitrator. See Pa. State Sys. of Higher Educ. v. Ass'n of Pa. State Coll. & Univ. Faculties, 98 A.3d 5 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014). An arbitrator is charged by the parties with a duty to apply and interpret the contract, including the concept of just cause. See OAG, 844 A.2d at 1217. The trial court's disagreement with the arbitrator's interpretation is not alone sufficient to set aside the arbitrator's interpretation.

         The trial court initially determined that the Arbitrator misapplied Section 1122 of the Public School Code of 1949, Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, as amended, 24 ...

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