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August 26, 2020 Practice Points

New York State Court Dismisses Arbitration Award as Moot

The court ruled the arbitrator overstepped his authority by requiring a school board to adhere to rules not set forth in the party’s collective bargaining agreement.

By Mariah Whitner

A New York appellate court dismissed an arbitration award as moot and ruled that the arbitrator overstepped his authority by requiring a school board to adhere to rules not set forth in the party’s collective bargaining agreement. In the Matter of Arbitration Between Buffalo Teachers Fed'n, Inc. & Bd. of Educ. of Buffalo Pub. Sch., 179 A.D.3d 1553 (N.Y. App. Div. 2020).

In response to budget concerns, the Board of Education of a Buffalo public school announced that it would be eliminating five and a half teaching positions during the 2017–2018 academic year. Petitioner teachers’ union filed a grievance hoping to prevent the teaching positions from being eliminated. The teachers’ union alleged that the board was acting in a retaliatory manner and discriminating against the teachers based on their status as union members. The trial court issued a temporary restraining order preventing the teaching positions from being eliminated while the parties’ dispute was pending. After the 2017–2018 school year, the parties went to arbitration and the arbitrator issued an award. Id at 1553-1554. The award stated that the teaching positions could not be eliminated, doing so would constitute discriminatory behavior on the part of the board, and if the board wanted to eliminate the teaching positions, it would have to do so in accordance with the school-based development guide rather than the parties’ collective bargaining agreement (the CBA). The teachers’ union moved to confirm the award, and the board filed a cross petition seeking to vacate it. The New York trial court confirmed the award, and the board appealed. Id at 1554.

On appeal, the court stated that an appeal will be considered moot unless “the rights of the parties will be directly affected by the determination of the appeal and the interest of the parties is an immediate consequence of the judgment.” Here the arbitration award addressed whether the teachers would be laid off during 2017–2018 school year, but the 2017–2018 academic year had ended. Accordingly, there was no way to retroactively eliminate the teaching positions during that school year or to enforce the arbitration award. As a result, the rights of the teachers’ union and the individual teachers’ jobs were not being directly affected, the teachers’ union could no longer claim that the board was acting in a discriminatory manner, and the award was moot insofar as it concerned the prior year’s teaching positions.

The court also ruled that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by requiring the board to eliminate the teaching positions in accordance with the school-based development guide rather than the CBA. An award may be vacated where an arbitrator “in effect, made a new contract for the parties in contravention of [an] explicit provision of [the] arbitration agreement which denied [the] arbitrator power to alter, add to or detract from” the parties’ collective bargaining agreement.” Schiferle v. Capital Fence Co., Inc., 155 A.D.3d 122, 126 (4th Dept. 2017). The court noted that the lower court’s decision effectively bound the parties to a new contract—the Guide—rather than the CBA. However, because “the CBA does not require [the board] to make its staffing or budgetary decisions in accordance with the Guide, the arbitrator contravened an express provision in the CBA that denied him the ‘authority to modify or amend it.” Matter of Buffalo Teachers Fedn., Inc  at 1554-1555. By doing so the arbitrator exceeded his authority. As a result, the part of the award that required the board to follow the guide was invalid and also should not have been confirmed.  

Mariah Whitner is a 2020 JD candidate at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, Illinois.

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