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This Commonwealth Court Holding May Get Student Rights Advocates’ Goat!

Posted By Cliff Tuttle | February 15, 2015

No. 1,122





No. 983 C.D. 2014

Image: wormsandgermsblog.com

Image: wormsandgermsblog.com

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld the refusal of a Common Pleas Court decision that denied the employer’s petition to vacate an arbitration award and reinstate a special education teacher who had been terminated due to an incident.  The Public Employee Relations Act PERA) provides that an arbitration award is governed by a highly deferential “essence test.”

“Under the essence test, a reviewing court may vacate a PERA arbitration award only where the award is indisputably and genuinely without foundation in, or fails to logically flow from, the underlying collective bargaining agreement (CBA). If the essence test is satisfied, the court may further consider whether the award violates a well- defined and dominant public policy.”

Here’s the story: A group of special education students visited a petting zoo.  A 14 year old autistic student “repeatedly lured a goat with food and hit it on the nose.

Several days later the teacher learned about the incident.  So he hung a sign around the student’s neck which read “I abuse Animals.” The story goes on, with the teacher resisting the efforts of another teacher to ameliorate the humiliation of the sign by changing it to “I Love Animals.” When the news of this reached the school administration, the teacher was dismissed.  This was followed by the filing of a grievance that was heard by an arbitrator.

At a hearing, other charges were added including extreme discipline, name calling and the use of trigger words.  The teacher was charged with immorality, cruelty, persistent negligence in performance of duties, willful neglect of duties and willful violation and failure to comply with school law and regulations.

The Arbitrator  sustained the grievance in part and denied it in part. She determined that the Grievant’s conduct did not constitute immorality, cruelty, etc.  Therefore the Arbitrator ruled that Grievant was terminated without just cause. However, the Arbitrator found that the Grievant’s conduct demonstrated a lack of professionalism and converted the termination to a 53 day suspension without pay, running from October 11, 2011 to the first day of school in January 2012. The reinstatement was conditioned upon successful completion of an improvement plan structured by the Employer.

The award was appealed by the Employer to common pleas court. The Court determined that the Arbitrator’s award was rationally derived from the CBA, was not in violation of public policy and refused to vacate the award.

The Commonwealth Court upheld the trial court decision that the award was justified under the essence test.  It also observed that the public policy exception to the essence test is extremely narrow.

“In light of the conditions imposed by Arbitrator, which address Employer’s concerns in this case, Arbitrator’s award does not pose an unacceptable risk to any well-defined or dominant school law or policy. [citing cases] Accordingly, we reject Employer’s contention that the trial court erred in failing to determine Arbitrator’s award violates the public policy exception.”



CLIFF TUTTLE has been a Pennsylvania lawyer for over 45 years and (inter alia) is a real estate litigator and legal writer. The posts in this blog are intended to provide general information about legal topics of interest to lawyers and consumers with a Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania focus. However, this information does not constitute legal advice and there is no lawyer-client relationship created when you read this blog. You are encouraged to leave comments but be aware that posted comments can be read by others. If you wish to contact me in privacy, please use the Contact Form located immediately below this message. I will reply promptly and in strict confidence.

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