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City of Harvey v. American Federation of State

August 16, 2002

THE CITY OF HARVEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
AMERICAN FEDERATION OF STATE, COUNTY AND MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES (AFSCME), COUNCIL 31, LOCAL 2404, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 00 CH 15907 Honorable Richard A. Siebel, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Reid

UNPUBLISHED

The appellant, the City of Harvey (Harvey), appeals the trial court's order which granted the defendant's, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 31, Local 2404 (Union), motion to confirm an arbitration award. On appeal, Harvey maintains the trial court erred because the arbitration award: (1) should be vacated on the grounds that the arbitrator did not have proper jurisdiction over the matter, and (2) violated public policy which mandates that an employer provide a safe workplace for its employees and eliminate known dangers. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the trial court.

BACKGROUND

This matter involves a Harvey employee who was terminated following an incident in which he allegedly made threatening remarks to his supervisor. The employee was a member of the Union. The Union and Harvey were parties to a collective bargain agreement which governed the employee's employment. An expedited grievance was filed on the employee's behalf protesting the discharge, and the dispute was arbitrated pursuant to the collective-bargaining agreement. At the arbitration hearing, Harvey raised a procedural and substantive issue regarding the form and content of the grievance. After hearing the dispute, the arbitrator found that the employee was removed without just cause. Harvey subsequently filed suit in the circuit court of Cook County and moved to have the arbitrator's award vacated. The Union responded to the suit and moved to confirm the arbitrator's award. The trial court denied Harvey's motion and confirmed the arbitration award. Harvey now appeals the trial court's decision confirming the arbitration award.

THE FACTS

The grievant, Dale Stokes, was employed by Harvey, which is a municipality in southern Cook County, Illinois. Stokes was first employed as a laborer for Harvey's street department in 1986. During his employment and at the time of his discharge, Stokes was a member of the Union. Harvey and the Union were parties to a collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) that governed the terms and conditions of employment for certain Harvey employees, such as Stokes.

On September 30, 1999, while Stokes was at work, a fluorescent lightbulb burst, releasing filaments that precipitated him having an asthma attack. Stokes informed his supervisor, Russell Knaack, of the situation and requested permission to go to nearby Ingalls Memorial Hospital (Ingalls Hospital) because he was having trouble breathing. Knaack granted Stokes permission and asked him if he needed a ride to the hospital. Stokes told Knaack that he did not because his mother was coming to pick him up.

Later while at Ingalls Hospital, Stokes, who was concerned about whether worker's compensation would cover his medical expenses, requested that hospital staff members telephone Knaack to seek approval for the hospital visit under worker's compensation. The hospital staff made two telephone calls to Knaack, and each time, Knaack informed the hospital staff members that he would not give such approval, instead telling the hospital staff members that they should call Harvey's city hall to seek such approval.

Consequently, Stokes asked his mother, Pauline Stokes (Mrs. Stokes), to go and speak with Knaack personally to clear up the matter. Mrs. Stokes went to the street department facility and had a discussion with Knaack. There are two rather different versions of the content of this conversation that came out at the arbitration hearing.

Mrs. Stokes testified that during the meeting she asked Knaack why her son's visit to the hospital was not covered by worker's compensation. Mrs. Stokes said that Knaack responded in an outburst by saying, "It's not job related and I'm not gonna okay it. If you want to get it okayed, call the mayor." When asked, "What do you mean in an outburst?" Mrs. Stokes replied, "He just screamed out. You know, hollered out and says, 'I'm not gonna do it, I'm not gonna do it. If you want to, call the mayor. I'm not going to do it.' And he said, 'It's dust all over the world.'"

Knaack denied making these comments to Mrs. Stokes. Knaack testified that he simply replied that the hospital visit was not covered under worker's compensation and then turned and walked away from Mrs. Stokes.

Mrs. Stokes' testimony concerning what occurred next follows: "I says, 'well, I'm not a child.' And I walked away. I said, 'I'm 73 years old. And I stood there for a minute because I was upset. And then I said, 'Well, what do you have to do, die on this darn job?' And I walked out. That was it."

Mrs. Stokes returned to the hospital and told Stokes about her meeting with Knaack. Stokes stayed at the hospital receiving treatment and medication until 2 p.m., at which time Stokes left and returned to work to fill out a report for worker's compensation.

The arbitrator's recitation of Knaack's testimony concerning the next sequence of events follows:

"At around 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon, Stokes came walking into the shop. He was walking rather briskly and hollered something which Knaack could not make out. He walked toward Stokes and Stokes walked toward him. Knaack asked Stokes 'What did you say? Stokes said, 'After work, you and I are going out in the salt bin.' (Upon being questioned further, Knaack said [the salt bin is] a place in the Street Department where employees go to physically settle their differences, to fight.) With that Knaack said, 'Are you threatening me?'

At that point, Knaack testified: 'He ran right up to me, he bumped into me, and he says "if you ever disrespect my mother again, I'm going to kill you." And he was right in my face and he bumped into me. I kind of stepped -- or I went back a little, and I put my left arm up for some separation between him and I. And at that point, another employee, Cleo Thurman, grabbed him and picked him up and apparently carried him back to the parts room.'

Knaack continued his testimony, saying he went back to his office and asked a secretary to call the police and told her [of] the problem. As he walked back to the bench, past the parts room, he saw that Thurman still had a hold of Stokes, had him up in the air. As he went by, he heard Stokes say, 'I'm going to kill that motherfucker.'"

Stokes denied ever threatening Knaack. Stokes did admit to telling Knaack that he didn't like Knaack disrespecting his mother. Stokes also testified that Knaack bumped into him, and he responded by saying, "Russ, don't push me." After asking Knaack not to push him for the second time, Stokes said, it was at that point that Cleo Thurman came and separated the two men. Stokes also testified that he remained in the parts room for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until he calmed down.

On October 1, 1999, Knaack attempted to conduct a preliminary hearing with Stokes as required by the CBA. Stokes refused to attend the meeting and also refused to sign a predisciplinary form. Knaack subsequently issued a 29-day suspension to Stokes. On October 1, 1999, Knaack also wrote a memorandum to the mayor of Harvey, wherein he recommended that Stokes be discharged. On October 11, 1999, Harvey terminated Stoke's employment.

Stokes was later arrested and charged with battery, assault and disorderly conduct as a result of the incident. A trial was held on January 25, 2000, and Stokes was found not guilty on all charges.

On October 15, 1999, Stokes and the Union filed a grievance. Harvey responded to the grievance, maintaining the document that Stokes submitted did not constitute a valid grievance. On June 22, 2000, the parties participated in an arbitration hearing before George Squillacote. On August 30, 2000, Squillacote issued his findings.

Initially, Squillacote decided that he had proper jurisdiction over the matter. Squillacote's findings ...


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