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Union River Valley Teachers v. Lamoine School Comm.

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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	2000 ME 57
Docket:	Han-99-452
Argued:	January 6, 2000
Decided:	April 4, 2000	

Panel:WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, ALEXANDER, and CALKINS, JJ.




UNION RIVER VALLEY TEACHERS ASSOCIATION v. LAMOINE SCHOOL COMMITTEE


CLIFFORD, J.

	[¶1]  The Lamoine School Committee appeals from a judgment
entered in the Superior Court (Hancock County, Marsano, J.)  confirming an
arbitration award pursuant to 14 M.R.S.A. § 5937 (1980).  The Committee
contends that the arbitrator erred because his award disregards the
underlying contract and violates state law and public policy.  Finding no
error in the court's  confirmance of the award,  we affirm the judgment.
	[¶2]  Timothy Barlow was employed as a teacher by the Lamoine
School Committee.  On May 15, 1998, Barlow was involved in an incident
where he aggressively disciplined a student.  Because this was the third time
Barlow had used questionable force against a student, the Committee began
dismissal procedures pursuant to its collective bargaining agreement with
the Teachers Association.  The Committee held a dismissal hearing on July 2
and July 6, 1998, at which, both sides were represented by counsel and
were allowed to call witnesses.  Following these hearings, the Committee
voted to dismiss Barlow on July 7, 1998.
	[¶3]  Barlow challenged his dismissal and, pursuant to the collective
bargaining agreement, the parties selected an arbitrator to hear the case. 
The issue that the parties agreed on for the arbitrator to decide was
whether "the termination [was] in compliance with the collective bargaining
agreement?  If not, what should the remedy be?"  An arbitration hearing was
held on October 9, November 19, and December 7, 1998.  The arbitrator
concluded that the Committee had failed to establish by clear and
convincing evidence that the alleged misconduct occurred.  Thus, the
arbitrator determined that dismissal was improper and determined that a
ten-day unpaid suspension was an appropriate punishment. 
	[¶4]  Pursuant to 14-M.R.S.A. § 5937, Barlow applied in the Superior
Court for the court to confirm the award.   Barlow also sought a preliminary
injunction requiring the Committee to reinstate him in his teaching
position.  Pursuant to 14 M.R.S.A. § 5938(1)(C) (1980), the Committee filed
a motion to vacate the arbitration award.  The Superior Court confirmed the
award and granted Barlow's request for a preliminary injunction.  This
appeal by the School Committee followed.
	[¶5]  The Committee contends that the arbitration award must be
vacated because the arbitrator exceeded his authority in fashioning the
award.  See 14 M.R.S.A. § 5938(1)(C).  Our review of an arbitrator's award is
narrow.  See AFSCME v. City of Portland, 675 A.2d 100, 102-03 (Me. 1996);
Board of Dirs. of Me. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 33 v. Teachers' Ass'n of Me. Sch.
Admin. Dist. No. 33, 395 A.2d 461, 463 (Me. 1978).  "We must uphold the
court's confirmation of an arbitration award unless [the court] was
compelled to vacate the award."  AFSCME, 675 A.2d at 102 (emphasis
added).  In determining if an arbitrator exceeded his authority, we construe
the underlying contract broadly, resolving all doubt in favor of finding that
the arbitrator acted within his power.  See id.; Caribou Bd. of Educ. v.
Caribou Teachers Ass'n, 404 A.2d 212, 214 (Me. 1979).  Moreover, "[t]he
mere fact that an arbitrator commits an error of law does not mean that he
has exceeded his authority."  City of Lewiston v. Lewiston Firefighters Ass'n,
629 A.2d 50, 53 (Me. 1993).  The party seeking to vacate the arbitration
award, here, the Committee, bears the burden of proving that the arbitrator
exceeded his authority.  See Seppala & Ano-Spear Assocs. v. Westbrook
Gardens, 388 A.2d 88, 90 (Me. 1978).
	[¶6]  The Committee argues that the arbitrator exceeded his authority
and violated public policy by applying the clear and convincing evidentiary
standard of proof to the Committee's allegation against Barlow.  It contends
that the use of that standard is contrary to Maine's teacher dismissal law,
20-A M.R.S.A. § 13202 (1993), eviscerates the Committee's duty to provide
a safe learning environment, places the Committee at risk of civil liability,
and ignores precedent that provides for lower evidentiary standards in civil
cases of this nature. 
	[¶7]  We have previously discussed many of these issues in a similar
context.  See Cape Elizabeth Sch. Bd. v. Cape Elizabeth Teachers Ass'n, 459
A.2d 166 (Me. 1983) (discussing relationship between statutes dealing with
arbitration and school board authority).  In Cape Elizabeth, the school board
argued that the statute, which allowed collective bargaining agreements to
include "just cause" provisions, forced the board to violate its statutory
"mandate" to dismiss unfit or unprofitable teachers, and stripped the board
of its governmental function.  See id. at 169-70.  The board in Cape
Elizabeth argued that it was "mandated" by the statutory precursors to
sections 13201 and 13202 to dismiss unprofitable and unproductive
teachers.  See id.  The arbitration award, it argued, would force the board to
violate this mandate.  See id.  In affirming the award, we recognized the
"dual system the legislature has created for review of § [13202] dismissals." 
Id. at 171.  Under this "dual system," an aggrieved teacher can challenge his
dismissal directly by appealing to the Superior Court pursuant to
M.R. Civ. P. 80B, or in the alternative, "the teacher may bypass an 80B
appeal and submit the dismissal to binding grievance arbitration when such
arbitration is provided by a collective bargaining agreement."  Id.  We noted
that "[i]f the dismissal goes to arbitration, the arbitrator determines
whether the school board had 'just cause' to dismiss-a standard not
identical to the criteria of § [13202]."  Id.  Although the school board argued
that the arbitration award forced it to violate the statutory mandate, we
concluded that "the amendment of § [13201] clearly permitted the Board to
agree voluntarily to submit § [13202] dismissals to binding grievance
arbitration."  Id.
	[¶8]  The Cape Elizabeth Board also argued that allowing an arbitrator
to adjudicate grievances related to teacher dismissals unconstitutionally
stripped the board of its governmental function.  See id.  Again, we
disagreed:
The Board, not the arbitrator, by voluntarily agreeing to
arbitration of dismissals, established pursuant to statute the
standard of just cause for dismissal of non-probationary . . .
teachers.  Whatever policy decisions that standard embodies
were made, not by the arbitrator, but by the Board in accordance
with legislation. . . .  It is not sufficient that the Board now
regrets agreeing to a grievance arbitration provision to which it
freely assented.  "[T]he surrender in collective bargaining
agreements of powers granted to boards of education by statute
to an arbitrator may later prove inconvenient or even disruptive
of the operation of a school district.  This, however, is a
contingency which should have been considered at the
bargaining table."
Id. at 172-73 (quoting Port Washington Union Free Sch. Dist. v. Port
Washington Teachers Ass'n, 45 N.Y.2d 746, 748, 380 N.E.2d 310, 311
(1978)).
	[¶9]  Here, the Committee makes similar arguments.  The Committee
contends that the arbitrator's use of the clear and convincing evidentiary
standard is at odds with the statutory "mandate" found in section 13202. 
Additionally, the Committee argues that the use of the heightened standard
strips it of its duty to provide a safe learning environment and places it at
risk of civil liability.
	[¶10]  Section 13202, however, is not a mandate that can be used to
oppose awards at an arbitration freely chosen by the parties that decide
questions voluntarily submitted for determination.  See Cape Elizabeth, 459
A.2d at 166.  Although the Committee attempts to limit its argument to the
arbitrator's decision to use the clear and convincing standard, the natural
extension of its argument leads to the conclusion that any arbitration award
could force school boards to violate the section 13202 mandate.  If this is
the case, 20-A M.R.S.A. § 13201 (1993), providing for agreements for
binding arbitration between school boards and teachers associations would
be rendered meaningless, because the choice would carry little weight.  The
Committee's argument disregards the "dual system" we recognized in Cape
Elizabeth.  The dual system provides protection to public school teachers.  
In that system, teachers have the opportunity to challenge dismissals
through the grievance process and to have disputed issues resolved through
grievance arbitration.  
	[¶11]  Moreover, even if the arbitrator erred as a matter of law when
he applied the clear and convincing standard, any error on this point does
not compel us to vacate the award.  "In bargaining for an arbitrator's
decision, the parties bargain as well for the arbitrator's interpretation of the
law."  Board of Dirs. of Me. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 33, 395 A.2d at 463.  "A
reviewing court is not empowered to overturn an arbitration award merely
because it believes that sound legal principles were not applied."  Id.
	[¶12]  Here, the Committee bargained for, and agreed to, the current
arbitration.  We have consistently held that arbitrat+ion awards will not be
vacated because the dispute would have been resolved differently in the
courts.  See id; Cape Elizabeth, 459 A.2d at 174.  The burden of establishing
that the arbitrator exceeded his authority lies squarely with the Committee
and the Committee has failed to meet its burden.  Accordingly, we affirm the
Superior Court's confirmation of the award.
	The entry is:
Judgment affirmed.
Attorney for plaintiff: Eric R. Herlan, Esq. Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon P O Box 9781 Portland, ME 04104-5081 Attorney for defendant: Sandra Hylander Collier, Esq. P O Box 1391 Ellsworth, ME 04605