Although nearly a year passed between a teacher’s knowledge of her inaccurate salary and the filing of her grievance, the Wisconsin Supreme Court deferred to an arbitrator’s finding that her grievance was timely filed.
In Baldwin-Woodville Area School District v. West Central Education Association – Baldwin-Woodville Unit, 2009 WI 51, the Wisconsin Supreme Court considered whether the arbitrator exceeded his authority by perversely misconstruing the collective bargaining agreement. The Court found the sequence of events in this case particularly important. In 2002, the Baldwin-Woodville School District hired a teacher and her initial placement on the salary scale accounted for eight credits of education beyond her bachelor’s degree. In October of 2002, the teacher unaware of the inaccuracy, signed a revised contract which incorrectly placed her in a salary lane that failed to credit her for any credits beyond a bachelor’s degree. In August of 2005, the teacher realized that the District was not compensating her appropriately and pursuant to her request, the District adjusted her salary. She did not make any separate back pay request at that time. In May of 2006, the teacher realized that the District had not compensated her for the period of time she was placed in the wrong salary lane and requested back pay. In late June of 2006, the School Board informed the teacher that it voted to deny her request for back pay.
The Union submitted a formal grievance to the District on June 26, 2006, which the District denied for a series of reasons, including that the grievance was untimely because the contract required that grievance be presented in writing “within fifteen (15) days after the facts upon which the grievance is based first occur or first become known.” The arbitrator found that the teacher learned of the Board’s decision in “late June”, and therefore, concluded that the grievance was timely filed within fifteen days of when the teacher learned that the Board denied her request for back pay.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that the arbitrator’s construction of the collective bargaining agreement had a foundation in reason, and therefore, was not a perverse misconstruction. The Court confirmed that in reviewing an arbitration award, the Court does not determine which party’s construction is more reasonable. Rather, the Court stated that an award will be upheld so long as there is some reasonable foundation for the interpretation of the contract offered in the decision.
The majority and dissenting opinions concluded that different triggering events were relevant to computing time under the contractual grievance procedure. While the majority decided that the arbitrator reasonably counted the fifteen day timeline from the date the Board notified the teacher that it denied her request for back pay, Justice Prosser’s dissent maintained that the latest date the teacher must have first known of the facts underlying the grievance was in May, 2006, which was more than fifteen days before the formal grievance was filed on June 26, 2006.
The judicial standard of reviewing an arbitration award has always afforded considerable deference to arbitrators. For this reason, this decision is significant because of the fact-specific emphasis the Court placed on the particular contract language and the dates upon which events occurred. The Court thus intimated that under different facts, the Court might find that an arbitrator exceeded his or her powers through perverse misconstruction if there were no reasonable debate about which event triggered the obligation to grieve. Therefore, school districts should maintain detailed accounts of all events that may establish that a grievance was not timely filed and offer clear evidence to arbitrators on timeliness issues, and not rest on advancing contract language without detailed proof. For example, evidence that the parties have historically treated contract timelines as serious requirements may support a school district’s timeliness defense. This decision should also encourage all Wisconsin school districts to review and evaluate existing contract language to ensure that time limits are clear, so that their ability to assert timeliness defenses is not impaired by ambiguous contract language, where courts will be less likely to reverse an otherwise suspect timeliness determination.
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