Eighth Circuit Holds Decertification of Nurses’ Union Does Not Limit Arbitrator’s Authority to Reinstate Terminated Employee

An arbitrator’s authority to award reinstatement and backpay to a union employee survives a union’s decertification, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. On July 2, 2013, the Eighth Circuit issued its decision in Midwest Div.-LSH LLC d/b/a Lee’s Summit Med. Ctr. v. Nurses United for Improved Patient Care, Docket No. 12-2229 (8th Cir., July 2, 2013), holding that an arbitrator did not exceed his authority by ordering the reinstatement of a nurse terminated without just cause and awarding her backpay, even though the National Labor Relations Board (Board) decertified the union before the arbitration hearing.

Lee’s Summit Medical Center terminated a registered nurse after receiving a complaint that she failed to provide prompt medical care to an emergency room patient. The union, Nurses United for Improved Patient Care, grieved the termination and eventually submitted the matter for binding arbitration. Two weeks before the arbitration hearing, the Board decertified the union. The parties continued with the hearing and stipulated that the matter was properly before the arbitrator and that the issues for arbitration were whether the hospital had just cause to terminate the nurse and, if not, what the appropriate remedy should be. The arbitrator found that the medical center lacked just cause to terminate the nurse, ordered her reinstated, and awarded her back pay from the date of the termination to the date of her reinstatement.

Seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, the medical center filed a declaratory judgment action under Section 301(c) of the Labor-Management Relations Act, alleging that the arbitrator exceeded his authority awarding reinstatement and backpay beyond the date of the union’s decertification. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri granted summary judgment affirming the arbitrator’s award.

Upholding the district court’s decision, the Eight Circuit explained that federal courts uphold arbitral awards whenever the arbitrator “is even arguably construing or applying” the relevant collective bargaining agreement and acts within the scope of his authority. The medical center’s collective bargaining agreement with the union expressly authorized arbitration of “matters which arose prior to the time of expiration,” and that reinstatement and back pay are “universally accepted labor arbitration remedies.” Thus, the court explained, absent a provision in a collective bargaining agreement expressly limiting an arbitrator’s authority to award backpay and reinstatement to the period covered by the collective bargaining agreement, courts will enforce arbitration awards that extend beyond a terminated contract.

Finding no support for the medical center’s argument that decertification “voided” the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, the court rejected it, noting, “we are confident the Board did not intend that its decertification would nullify grievance and arbitration proceedings pending under the union’s CBA.” Although the medical center cited Second and Fifth Circuit decisions limiting enforcement of the arbitral remedies based on post-arbitration circumstances, the court explained that those holdings were immaterial because unlike the post-arbitration circumstances in those cases, “the circumstances of the union’s decertification and the CBA’s expiration were known to, and expressly considered by, the arbitrator in making his award.”

The court also rejected the medical center’s contention that the union’s decertification stripped the nurse of the collective bargaining agreement’s job protections. Indeed, the court noted that the medical center’s argument that awarding the grievant reinstatement and backpay afforded her rights superior to other at-will employees “is an attack on the fairness of the arbitrator’s remedy, not on his authority.”

Ultimately, the court’s determination is indicative of the strong deference that federal courts afford to labor arbitrators’ rulings. Absent some specific express language limiting an arbitrator’s authority, the mere expiration of a collective bargaining agreement may not be sufficient to limit an arbitrator’s award.

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Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.