On June 23, 2009, the Appellate Division decided New Jersey Transit Corporation v. P.B.A. Local 304, Docket No.: A-3341-07T3. In the case, PBA Local 304 (“PBA”) appealed from an order of the Chancery Division, General Equity Part, overturning an arbitration award that declared that New Jersey Transit (“NJT”) police officers who are transferred involuntarily by the Chief of Police are entitled to additional pay for travel time. The court held that the arbitrator’s decision violated public policy because it restricted the chief’s authority to reassign officers, thereby limiting his ability to enhance operational awareness and public safety.
This matter concerned the arbitrator’s interpretation of Article XXIII, Section 6 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The article provides in relevant part:
(a) A temporary position may, at the discretion of the Chief of Police, be assigned to an officer for a period not to exceed 30 calendar days.
(b) After a 30 calendar day period or less, the assigned officer will then be reassigned to his original position, and a second officer may then be assigned, then the third, etc.
On March 1, 2005, the NJT Chief of Police issued orders temporarily assigning two police officers to each other’s regular assignments for a period of twenty-eight calendar days. Specifically, Officer Trumble was transferred from his position in Hoboken, and assigned to Officer Sepe’s position in Newark, while Officer Sepe was assigned to Officer Trumble’s Hoboken position. The assignment orders were effective from March 5, 2005 until April 1, 2005.
On March 22, 2005, the PBA filed a grievance, alleging that the assignments constituted an “involuntary tour swap,” because the affected orders were required to change their bid work location (regular assignment) and to work each other’s bid position. On May 9, 2006, the matter was submitted to arbitration. The parties framed the issue thusly: “Was the effectuation of personnel orders P 05-047 and/or P 05-048 in violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement?”
At arbitration, the PBA argued that the assignments are limited under the Article to positions that are open or vacant, and not to those positions that are already filled by officers who had been awarded those positions. NJT argued that, except for certain time limitations, the Article does not limit the Chief’s discretionary authority to assign temporary positions.
The arbitrator ruled in favor of the PBA, and directed that the officers be compensated for having their work location changed. The award did not include a specific amount of compensation. The matter proceeded to Superior Court by way of the PBA’s action to confirm. NJT sought to vacate the award. Initially, the trial court confirmed the arbitration, determining that the arbitrator’s decision was reasonably debatable. On an order to show cause for reconsideration, the court reversed itself, determining that the award violated public policy by severely restricting the Chief’s statutory responsibility to promote and provide for public safety. This appeal ensued.
After reviewing the record and considering prevailing legal standards, the Appellate Division reversed. The Court was satisfied that the arbitrator’s interpretation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement was reasonable and, therefore, entitled to deferential treatment. According to the Court, the arbitrator merely found, from an interpretation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, that officers who are involuntarily reassigned from certain positions are entitled to compensation. The issue was about compensation, not the authority of the Chief to reassign officers as he sees fit. Since the arbitrator’s decision was based on a reasonable, although albeit fairly debatable interpretation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Court was compelled to uphold it.