Supreme Judicial Court Discusses Public Policy Exception to Vacating Arbitration Awards

On October 3, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court sustained an arbitration award reinstating a police officer who had filed a police report that the arbitrator found was “intentionally misleading” but not “intentionally false” and that did not result in a wrongful arrest, a wrongful prosecution, or a deprivation of civil rights. The decision, City of Pittsfield v. Local 447 International Brotherhood of Police Officers (SJC No. 12450) shows how closely courts will scrutinize whether an arbitration award violates Massachusetts public policy where the award orders the reinstatement of a police officer who has violated the requirements of truthfulness in performing his or her duties.

The facts are as follows: A City police officer responded to a larceny report at a local supermarket, arrested the suspect; and placed her in the back of the cruiser.  The supermarket security staff then asked to photograph the suspect and the officer complied, removing the suspect from the cruiser and placing her on the ground.  Later, in his report the officer claimed the suspect was thrashing in the cruiser and he removed the suspect “for her safety.”  After the City investigated and found no safety concerns, it terminated the officer for conduct unbecoming an officer, untruthfulness and falsifying records by claiming he removed the suspect “for her safety.”

The officer then followed the grievance and arbitration process and the arbitrator found that by claiming to have removed the suspect “for her safety” the officer’s statement was “untrue, intentionally misleading, and cause for discipline, but less than intentionally false.”  Consequently, the arbitrator found no just cause to terminate the officer and reinstated his employment, ordering instead a three-day suspension.  The City appealed, arguing that the reinstatement of a police officer who engaged in this conduct violates public policy, but the Superior Court refused to vacate; the City appealed that ruling; and the Supreme Judicial Court granted its application for direct review.

Recognizing the strong Massachusetts policy which favors arbitration of employment disputes, the court focused on the “rare circumstances” for vacating an award under G.L. c. 150C, § 11 and particularly on that urged by the City – that the award of reinstatement itself violates strong public policy regarding the need for police officers to be truthful.

The court agreed that prior decisions recognize a public policy that “supports terminating police officers for lying…” The court emphasized, however, that the inquiry is not whether the employee’s behavior violates public policy, but, rather, whether the award itself does so.  The court found that this case differed from those which have vacated awards because here an ambiguity existed, in that the arbitrator found the officer’s statement to be “knowingly inaccurate” and “intentionally misleading” but not necessarily “false.”  This finding, the court ruled, was a “conclusion that a phrase in [the officer’s] report was no more than misleading” and that an award reinstating an who officer submitted a misleading statement did not necessarily violate public policy.  Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court’s refusal to vacate the award.

The court issued two important caveats. First, it stated that had the officer’s conduct violated G.L. c. 268, § 13B which makes it a crime for anyone to wilfully mislead a judge, prosecutor, or police officer with the intent to impede or interfere, with a criminal investigation or any legal proceeding or do so with “reckless disregard,” the public policy exception would have required that the award be vacated.  Because the arbitrator found that the officer’s statement was made on his own behalf to avoid discipline and not  to influence the suspect’s criminal case, there could be no violation of § 13B.  Second, the court also addressed the fact that the county District Attorney’s office had advised that it would no longer use the officer to testify in any cases based on this incident.  The court found this fact “troubling.”  Because this evidence was not available at the time of termination and was not presented in the arbitration, it could not be used to vacate the award.  The court expressly stated, however, that the City was not barred from “pursuing any additional appropriate discipline” based on this letter “or any other newly acquired information.”

Finally, the court made clear that its ruling “does nothing to limit the ability of police chiefs to terminate officers for lying where the arbitrator agrees that such conduct occurred…[or] change the public policy exceptions that bars the reinstatement of officers…whose lies have restricted other’s liberty.” If, the court stated, “a police chief decides to terminate an officer in circumstances in which the officer’s false statements violated G. L. c. 268, § 6A or 13B, or which otherwise resulted in an unjustified arrest or prosecution, or in a deprivation of liberty or denial of civil rights, an arbitration award finding no just cause for such a dismissal and reinstating the officer would violate public policy.”

While on its face this decision might seem to unduly hamper police chiefs in disciplining untruthful police officers, the resulting limitation actually appears to be narrow. If you have any questions regarding the content of this update, or any other questions regarding labor or employment law generally, please contact us.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.