We’re just a few weeks away from my firm’s Public Sector legal update.  (If you haven’t signed up yet, do so now because it’s getting close to capacity!)

So it seems appropriate to bring up a sore point for some: Arbitration Decisions That Leave You Scratching Your Head.

Today, I’ve asked my colleagues Saranne Murray and Jarad Lucan to tackle a new decision that we can add to that category.

When finding cases to talk about, we like to pick ones that will have an impact on employers.

But truth be told, it’s kind of tough to say that about an arbitration decision.

Why? Because Connecticut courts have held that one arbitration award doesn’t have to be followed by other arbitrators.  (In legal terms, an award isn’t “precedent”.)

But we cannot resist sharing a case that has been making headlines for a while in Connecticut.

Remember the awful story of the young boy in Windsor Locks who was killed while he was riding his bicycle and was hit by the car of an off-duty police officer?

Well, in what some considered “guilt by association” and others thought was a molestation of process, the Windsor Locks Police Commission fired the officer’s father (Robert Koistinen), who was a Sergeant in the Department and the first one to arrive at the scene of the accident.

The Commission gave a bunch of reasons for Sergeant Koistinen’s firing including that he failed to exercise any control over the crime scene to avoid the destruction of evidence, and that he left the scene twice with his son in the back seat of his SUV.

Ultimately, the issue of the termination was decided through the arbitration process last week.

The Town faced a number of obstacles in the arbitration.

First, the firm hired by the Town to do an independent investigation after the accident found that Sergeant Koistinen’s actions “did not appear to produce any negative impact on the overall investigation.”  The report went on to state that “we also do not take issue with the action taken of putting Michael Koistinen, the operator, in his SUV vehicle.”

Second, Sergeant Koistinen had 34 years of unblemished service with the Town.

In the end, the arbitration panel (download the decision here) found that there was not “just cause” for the discharge.  Instead it reduced the termination to a one-year suspension.

While this may seem like a reasonable outcome to some, it is the kind of arbitration award that drives management lawyers and employers crazy.  It’s fair to ask:  “If what the person did was bad enough for a full year’s suspension, why wasn’t it enough to fire him?  And who are these arbitrators to decide what is best for our workplace?”

But these types of arbitration decisions are difficult to challenge.  Why? Because when the issue presented to the arbitrators is whether there was just cause for discharge of the employee, that is a so-called “unrestricted” issue meaning the judgment of the arbitrators is also “unrestricted”.

In other words, give the arbitrator a broad issue and the arbitrator will end up having broad discretion to decide it.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. It remains to be seen whether Windsor Locks will try to overcome these odds and ask a court to vacate the award.  Stay tuned, since they have to make that decision within 30 days.