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CBA allowed arbitrator to look to state concealed-carry law; reinstatement of employee fired for gun in car upheld

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

Finding that the text of a collective bargaining agreement permitted an arbitrator to look to external law in interpreting the agreement, the Seventh Circuit reversed the judgment of a district court and upheld the arbitrator’s award ordering reinstatement of an employee who was fired over a firearm lawfully stored in his car. Language contained in the preamble of the CBA suspended any part of the agreement that either the company or the union believed to conflict with state law. Because the arbitrator applied the Illinois Concealed Carry Act to reinstate the employee, the extraordinary deferential standard of review compelled the court to uphold the award (Ameren Illinois Co. v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local Union 51, October 12, 2018, Kanne, M.).

The employee got into a series of heated argument with his supervisor over the scheduling of work. Other employees later indicated to the supervisor that the employee owned several firearms and was known to carry a concealed weapon either on his person or in his personal vehicle, which was parked in the company parking lot. Several days later, company officials confronted the employee in the presence of a union representative and a deputy sheriff. The employee consented to a search of his person and vehicle for weapons. A firearm was uncovered in the employee’s truck.

Concealed carry permit. Thereafter, the employer notified the employee that he was being terminated for violating its Workplace Violence Policy, which expressly prohibits threatening or intimidating another employee. The employee’s union filed a grievance on his behalf to protest his termination and pursued the matter through arbitration. The arbitrator determined that although the employee had technically violated the policy by storing a firearm in his personal vehicle, he determined that the policy was unenforceable because the employee was licensed to carry the weapon under the Illinois Concealed Carry Act.

That statute expressly permitted the employee to store his firearm in his vehicle on private property unless the owner posted a sign “indicating that firearms are prohibited on the property.” Because the employer had no such sign posted, the arbitrator found that the law served to prohibit the employer from enforcing the rule in the employee’s case because he was in possession of a concealed carry permit. The arbitrator ordered the employee reinstated.

Thereafter, the employer sought review in a federal district court and obtained an order vacating the arbitration award on the ground that the arbitrator improperly applied external law to contradict the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

Roadmaster rule. In this case, the arbitrator issued a lengthy, reasoned award that directly engaged with the tensions between the CBA and the public statute. The arbitrator acknowledged the Seventh Circuit’s rule in Roadmaster Corp. v. Prod. and Maint. Emp. Local 504, Laborers’ Int’l Union of N. Am., AFL-CIO, in which the court established a bright-line rule for future labor arbitration and the consideration of contrary positive law: “When a contract . . . specifically limits an arbitrator’s subject matter jurisdiction, the arbitrator should restrict his consideration to the contract, even if such a decision conflicts with . . . statutory law.” However, the appeals court found his attempt to distinguish Roadmaster less than satisfying.

Analyzing the reasoning contained in the award, and relying on Roadmasrter, the district court concluded that the arbitrator went outside the scope of his charge to determine whether there was just cause to terminate the employee. Still, before rejecting an award because of language in the arbitrator’s opinion, the opinion must unambiguously reflect that the arbitrator based his decision on non-contractual grounds. Thus, the court had to determine whether the arbitrator’s interpretation of the “just cause” language in the CBA violated the scope of his authority.

CBA preamble. Here, the CBA contained the following language in its preamble: Any provisions of the Agreement found by either party to be in conflict with State or Federal statutes shall be suspended when such conflict occurs and shall immediately thereafter be reopened for amendment to remove such conflict. Although both the arbitrator and district court overlooked this provision, the appeals court concluded that it firmly established the intent of the parties to bring external law such as the Concealed Carry Act within the scope of the bargain. Further, both parties framed their arguments to the arbitrator in terms of the statute.

Accordingly, the arbitration award should be enforced because it was supported by the terms of the parties’ agreement and was well within the arbitrator’s authority, despite the fact that the arbitrator’s opinion did not spell this out.