As reported in the New Jersey Law Journal, Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Local 67 (FMBA #67), filed a grievance against the Borough of Carteret in regard to a staffing issue that the parties had agreed to which was subsequently retracted by the Borough. The case was taken to an arbitration hearing and the arbitrator ruled in favor of the union. Thereafter, the Borough appealed the decision to the Chancery Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, who affirmed the Arbitrator’s decision. Notwithstanding the Chancery Decision affirming the arbitrator’s decision, the Borough again appealed the decision to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, who reversed the Chancery Court’s decision, finding that the Arbitrator “erred” stating that, “the CSC’s job descriptions for firefighters and fire lieutenants created ambiguity as to the applicability of the CBA” and thus the arbitrator was incorrect in his interpretation of the same. However, the case did not end there as FMBA #67 filed a Petition for Certiorari with the New Jersey Supreme Court who agreed to hear the matter on appeal.
In another turn of events, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s judgment, and found that the arbitrator’s ruling was actually supported by a plausible interpretation of the collectively negotiated agreement (“CNA”) and therefore satisfied the “reasonably debatable” standard.
In summary the Court held as follows:
1. An arbitrator’s award resolving a public sector dispute will be accepted so long as it is “reasonably debatable.” Under that standard, a court may not substitute its judgment for that of the arbitrator, regardless of the court’s view of the correctness of the arbitrator’s position. If two or more interpretations of a labor agreement could be plausibly argued, the outcome is at least reasonably debatable.
2. The arbitrator’s award in this matter was supported by a plausible interpretation of the CNA and therefore satisfies the “reasonably debatable” standard. In reversing the arbitrator’s award, the Appellate Division incorrectly substituted its own judgment and did not afford proper deference to the arbitrator’s interpretation of the CNA.
The Court found that both the FMBA and Borough’s interpretation of the CNA was plausible and the arbitrator sided with the FMBA. The inquiry on appeal is not whether the appellate court has a better interpretation of the agreement. It is the arbitrator’s interpretation of the CNA that the parties bargained for here and, thus, the decision should not have been disturbed.
While the standard adopted by the New Jersey Supreme Court has always been the “gold” standard for Court’s reviewing grievance arbitration awards, it is beneficial for everyone to have a firm understanding that the New Jersey Supreme Court has once again put its stamp of approval on how arbitrations awards should be reviewed at the appellate level in the State of New Jersey.