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Policemen’s Benevolent Association, Local No. 11 v. City of Trenton

205 N.J. 422, 16 A.3d 322 (2011)

ARBITRATION — Courts give an extremely deferential review to an arbitrator’s decision under a collective bargaining agreement so long as the arbitrator’s award draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement.

Allegedly basing its decision on a section of a collective bargaining agreement for policemen, a municipality ordered an uncompensated ten minute muster period at the beginning of the workday. The union filed a grievance and the dispute was submitted to binding arbitration. The arbitrator sustained the union’s grievance, finding that the employees who reported early were entitled to compensation at a straight time rate. The arbitrator explained that all provisions of the agreement had to be read collectively and, when interpreting the section relied upon by the municipality, the arbitrator looked to other sections of the agreement. The section relied upon by him said that no overtime shall be paid for a ten minute period prior to the commencement of a tour. The arbitrator concluded that if the section was to preclude all compensation for the extra ten minutes, it would have said that no additional compensation would be paid – language that had been used elsewhere in the agreement. The arbitrator said that because the section relied upon was silent regarding straight time compensation, the strong presumption of pay for work was dispositive. When the union moved to confirm the award, the lower court ruled the plain language of the agreement precluded any compensation for the ten minute period.

The union appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed. It held that the arbitrator’s interpretation was reasonably debatable, as the parties could have used “no additional compensation” language as was used elsewhere in the document to make the intention to deny all pay clear.

Now, the municipality appealed, but the New Jersey Supreme Court also found the arbitrator’s interpretation of the agreement plausible, and therefore the arbitrator survived the reasonably debatable standard of review. The Court held that an extremely deferential review is generally undertaken by a court when a party to a collective bargaining agreement seeks to vacate an arbitrator’s award. To be legitimate, the arbitrator’s award had to draw its essence from the collective bargaining agreement. In this matter, the arbitrator considered the agreement as an integrated whole, and one clear meaning of the provisions was that straight time compensation would be available for the first ten minutes of a muster. Thus, the judgment of the Appellate Division was upheld, and the matter was remanded to the lower court for confirmation of the arbitration award.

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