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Reinstatement of coal miner who tested positive for marijuana upheld

An arbitrator did not exceed her authority when she ordered reinstatement of a coal mine worker who was discharged after testing positive for marijuana used six days before returning to work after a vacation, a federal district court held (Consolidation Coal Co v United Mine Workers Local 9909, No 1:09CV11). On December 8, 2008, Consolidation Coal Co (Consol) selected the worker for a drug test pursuant to its random testing procedures. After testing positive for marijuana metabolites, Consol suspended him with intent to discharge and the parties went to arbitration. The arbitrator, finding that Consol did not have just cause to dismiss him because the decision to discharge was not made with the worker’s record in mind, ordered that Consol “reinstate [the worker] immediately, without back pay, but in every other way to make him whole.” In its motion to vacate the award, Consol contended the arbitrator’s decision was informed by her personal beliefs, outside the four corners of the CBA.

Consol contended the language of the CBA was clear and unambiguous, and that nothing in the contract language limited its authority to determine just cause for termination in this case. The court rejected the argument that the arbitrator ignored the plain language of the CBA. Where the CBA does not address certain issues, the arbitrator must resolve them through interpretation. Emphasizing that company rules state that drug use will result in discipline, up to and including discharge, the court held the contract in this case did not mandate discharge as a result of drug use; rather, drug use results in a penalty up to and including discharge and discharge will not occur without just cause. The CBA does not define “just cause,” the court noted, so its meaning was to be determined by the arbitrator. In all, the court concluded the award drew its essence from the CBA, and the arbitrator had not imposed her own notions of right and wrong.

Nor did the award run counter to public policy. Since the worker did not go into the mine intoxicated or with intoxicants, the court recognized that reasonable minds can differ as to whether termination or reinstatement was the more appropriate outcome. The arbitrator’s award did not condone the worker’s conduct or ignore the risk to public safety that drug use by miners may pose, and the court could not find in any law or legal precedent an explicit, well-defined, dominant public policy to which the arbitrator’s decision ran contrary. Accordingly, the arbitration award was enforced.