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Southwestern Electric Cooperative, Inc v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

August 26, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Herndon, Chief Judge:


At issue here is whether plaintiff Southwestern Electric Cooperative Inc. (the "plaintiff" or "employer") and defendant International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 702 (the "defendant" or "union") have agreed to submit a particular grievance to arbitration. For the reasons explained below, the Court finds that the parties have agreed to submit the grievance at issue to arbitration. Therefore, the Court denies plaintiff's motion to vacate arbitration award (Doc. 4), grants defendant's motion to enforce arbitration award (Doc. 11), and grants defendant's motion for sanctions (Doc. 17).

I. Background

During the time period relevant to this case, the employer and union had entered into an "articles of agreement" (the "agreement") whereby the employer agreed to provide each of its employees a certain number of sick days per year.

The agreement provided that any unused sick days accumulated in the employee's personal sick bank, up to a maximum of seventy days. Days accrued beyond seventy went to the Central Bank, whose purpose was "to provide extended sick pay for employees who have exhausted their accumulated personal sick leave due to serious illness or injury and are unable to return to work as verified by a doctor's statement." (Doc. 5-2, p. 16).

Pursuant to the agreement, a four-person committee, consisting of two union representatives and two management representatives, was to be established to consider each request for payment. The agreement required a majority vote of the committee to approve payment from the Central Bank. Despite this provision, because the employer has three service areas, the parties agreed to establish a six-person committee, consisting of three union representatives and three management representatives (the "Central Bank committee").

The agreement also set forth grievance and arbitration procedures. Specifically, the agreement provided that "[a] complaint or grievance arising under the terms and provisions of this [a]greement, or any difference between the parties as to the interpretation and application of this [a]greement, shall be settled in accordance with the following procedures," which set forth the procedures for an aggrieved employee to take to present a complaint or grievance. In essence, if a complaint or grievance is not resolved internally between the employer and union, then the agreement provides that the matter shall be submitted to arbitration. Further, the agreement dictates that "[t]he [a]rbitrator shall have no authority to change, alter, add or delete from the contract. The [a]rbitrator's decision within the limits of his authority shall be final and binding upon the parties."

On October 19, 2010, plaintiff's employee, Joanne M. Branger, filed a request for sick leave from the Central Bank with plaintiff. (Doc. 5-3). Branger sought thirteen weeks or sixty-five days of sick leave bank days as a result of long-term disability. (Doc. 5-3). Branger's request was sent to the Central Bank committee and the three union representatives voted to her approve her request while the three management representatives voted to deny it. Branger was notified of this decision by letter on November 12, 2010. (Doc. 29-1). On November 23, 2011, the union filed a grievance alleging that the employer violated the agreement by not paying Branger for her requested time from the Central Bank. Unable to resolve the dispute internally, the grievance went to arbitration. The arbitration was held on July 11, 2011, and on September 24, 2011, the arbitrator issued his award (Doc. 5-6), determining that the employer violated the agreement by not paying Ms. Branger for her requested Central Bank sick leave time and ordering the employer to pay her thirteen weeks of sick leave from the Central Bank.

On November 28, 2011, plaintiff filed a complaint to vacate arbitration award (Doc. 2), a motion to vacate the arbitration award (Doc. 4), and a memorandum in support thereof (Doc. 5). In plaintiff's complaint and motion to vacate, plaintiff contends that 1) the arbitrator's award does not draw its essence from the collective bargaining agreement because a majority of the Central Bank committee did not vote in favor of approving the grievant's request for Central Bank time and 2) the arbitrator exceeded the scope of it authority and exhibited a manifest disregard for the law because the Central Bank committee's decision was not subject to arbitration because the Central Bank committee was a party to neither the collective bargaining agreement nor the arbitration.

On January 4, 2012, defendant filed its answer and a counterclaim to enforce the arbitration award (Doc. 10), arguing that the employer's refusal to comply with the arbitrator's award is without justification or excuse and is vexatious and unreasonable. Accordingly, defendant requested an order enforcing the award issued by the arbitrator, prejudgement interest, and an award to the union of its attorney fees and costs. That same day, defendant filed its motion to enforce arbitration award (Doc. 11) along with a memorandum in support thereof (Doc. 12). On January 23, 2012, defendant filed a motion for sanctions pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 11 (Doc. 17) on the grounds that:

1. This case was filed and is being presented for improper purposes including the denial of paid sick leave on an arbitrary and capricious basis, to cause unnecessary delay in complying with the arbitration award issued by [the arbitrator] in favor of

[d]efendant and to needlessly increase the cost of litigation;

2. The claims, defenses and other legal contentions are not warranted by existing law or by a non-frivolous argument for extending, modifying or reversing ...

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