Court of Appeals Affirms Arbitrator’s Decision in City of Duluth Case, Closes the Book on Public Policy Chapter

For the last few years, starting with the Court of Appeals decision in City of Richfield v. LELS, the possibility of having an arbitrator’s decision overturned as violative of public policy actually seemed attainable.  However, with the Supreme Court’s overturning of City of Richfield last year and the Court of Appeals latest decision in City of Duluth v. Duluth Police Union, Local No. 807, the window for appeal of an arbitrator’s decision appears to have receded to its previous size.  You can download a copy of the decision here:

For those who cannot recall the Duluth case, it arose from the arrest of a homeless man in the Duluth Skyway in May of 2017.  As the suspect was being escorted out of the skyway, he went limp and informed the officers he wasn’t “gonna to make it easy” for them.  Without hesitation, the officer who had a hold of the suspect, Adam Huot, started dragging the suspect out by the arms, and ultimately dragged him into the frame of a door.  The entire exchange was caught on police body camera.  Officer Huot also failed to report the use of force to his supervisor prior to the end of his shift, in violation of department policy. 

For his actions, the City sought termination of Officer Huot’s employment, and cited Huot’s previous discipline for unreasonable use of force as a habitual behavior of the officer.  The City also cited the Court of Appeals decision from the City of Richfield case, and noted the similarities between the two cases if the arbitrator were to rule against it.  The arbitrator found that Huot’s use of force constituted misconduct, but reinstated him to his position without back pay – in effect giving him a 13-month suspension. 

As we suspected then, the City appealed the decision of the arbitrator in district court.  In contrast to the Court of Appeals in City of Richfield, the district court found that there was no strong public policy against the reinstatement of an officer who used unreasonable force in conducting an arrest or failing to notify a supervisor of such use of force, and affirmed the arbitrator’s decision. 

Unfortunately for the City, the Supreme Court had already reversed the Court of Appeals decision in City of Richfield by the time its appeal occurred, so the City had very little room to create a public policy for the arbitrator’s award to have violated.  One must remember, when using the public policy attack to have an arbitrator’s award overturned, it is the award which reinstates the employee that must be in contravention of public policy; not the act of the employee. 

The City found room to distinguish itself from other cases, in that it noted the arbitrator found the officer had “a penchant” for unreasonable use of force.  As such, the City argued the officer’s unreasonable use of force had become a habit, and his reinstatement would only lead to further acts of excessive force.  In rejecting this argument, the court found that the arbitrator stated the officer’s use of force was not a habit, but rather, he had engaged in the excessive use of force on two occasions, and to say the officer would engage in excessive use of force again if returned was merely speculative.  

Furthermore, the court also found that unlike the one case where an arbitrator’s award has been successfully overturned, City of Brooklyn Center, as well as in its previous decision in City of Richfield, the officer did not have a history of failing to report his use of force.  As such, the court found no public policy violation. 

Prior to the Court of Appeals decision in City of Richfield, those in labor relations found the grounds for appeal of an arbitrator’s decision reinstating an employee to be very narrow.  After three years of appeals and decisions, the Minnesota courts have now come full circle with those sentiments. 

Clearly, employers are not entirely foreclosed from the appeal of arbitrators’ decisions, otherwise the City of Brooklyn Center decision would have been overturned.  But that situation involved egregious circumstances; an officer who had repeatedly harassed and stalked young women despite previous discipline and legal action being taken against him, thus warranting the reversal of his reinstatement.  It is only in these extreme cases where such an option is available.  In most other circumstances, the decision of an arbitrator is likely to be the final word.  If you or your organization need assistance in the discipline or termination of your employees, or dealing with the fallout of an unfavorable arbitration award, contact the Wiley Law Office, for labor advice that works.