In my previous posts, I’ve talked about procedural arbitrability, which is a question about whether an arbitrator can hear a contractual dispute because one party has failed to follow the grievance procedure. In this post, I’ll discuss substantive arbitrability. Substantive arbitrability differs from procedural in that it depends on the question of whether the arbitrator has the authority to decide on the underlying substantive issue. For example, a contract may state that an arbitrator may not hear cases of a certain type. Substantive arbitrability issues can be raised to the arbitrator, but they are also raised after an arbitration decision in court when one party (or both) feels that the arbitrator exceeded their powers under the collective bargaining agreement.
Now let’s talk about substantive arbitrability. These are cases which one party believes the arbitrator doesn’t have jurisdiction over the subject matter. One example of this is Last Chance Agreements (LCA), which is a broader topic, but in general LCAs limit the arbitrator’s jurisdiction to deciding whether the employee violated the terms of the LCA or not. If the employee did, the consequence is spelled out in the LCA and the arbitrator cannot alter the outcome.
Managers frequently assert ‘management rights’ as the basis for why an arbitrator cannot hear a dispute. The actual language of the agreement will be very important here, and will involve a lot of argument. As a practice tip, both sides will need to identify what specific language in the agreement give the arbitrator jurisdiction or not.
Another substantive arbitrability issue arises when a party adds a claim or theory to the original grievance when they get to hearing. Just as an employee has a right to know what they are being fired for, an employer has a right to know what the union believes the contract violation is.
Often there is language in the agreement that limits the arbitrator’s jurisdiction, such as “cannot add to, subtract from or modify the agreement.” If one party believes that the remedy sought by the other side would do that, such as asking an arbitrator to create a new attendance policy, then they should argue this language prevents such a remedy, and ask that if a violation be found, the parties be ordered to fashion their own remedy, for example. In addition, parties sometimes ask arbitrators to act as EEOC administrators, or workers comp judges, or want a legal ruling on a statute. At the end of the day, the arbitrator is there to hear contract disputes, and usually wants to hear only those.
Finally, when should the parties argue the arbitrability issues? As soon as possible, not only in the grievance procedure but in the hearing. Some parties request bifurcation – that is, they want the arbitrator to hear the arbitrability issue before they hear the merits of the case. Unless the parties agree to bifurcate, the arbitrator retains the jurisdiction to rule on bifurcation. Often to an arbitrator, it makes more sense to hear the whole case at once, since the arbitrability issues are often interwoven, but it depends on the facts of the case.
I hope you have found this series useful. Please let me know if you have any questions that I can answer in future posts. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.