In Contrast to Richfield Decision, Judge Denies City’s Claim that Reinstatement was Contrary to Public Policy

As we all eagerly anticipate the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in City for Richfield v. LELS, a different Minnesota District Court out of St. Louis County made a decision about whether the reinstatement of a police officer for improper use of force runs contrary to public policy.

Last spring, we discussed an arbitration award out of Duluth where the arbitrator reinstated an officer following his improper use of force.  In the wake of the decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Richfield, this award seemed ripe for challenge at the district court level.  Well, the City of Duluth did challenge the arbitrator’s decision.

In that decision (below), Judge Hylden laid out the history of challenges to arbitration awards in Minnesota as contrary to public policy, starting with the State Auditor case all the way through the Richfield decision.  After making it clear that an arbitration award may be overturned on public policy grounds if it creates an explicit conflict with other laws and legal precedents, the court stated its role was to determine “whether the bargained-for arbitration award reinstating the employee without back pay . . . violates some public policy.”

The court agreed with the City of Duluth that there are laws that require departments to establish and enforce policies on the use of force.  But the judge also determined that there are no laws or policies that forbid an arbitrator from reinstating an officer after a violation of those policies.  The PELRA and POST standards cited by Duluth as well as the City in the Richfield decision were characterized as “general in nature rather than well-defined” statements of public policy.

In the end, the court cited the reasoning of the Court of Appeals’s decision in City of Minneapolis v. Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, which stated “There is no well-defined public policy stating that an officer must automatically be discharged if he or she is involved in an excessive force situation.”  He also stated that the parties had ample opportunity to bargain such language into their contract since the State Auditor case, and failed to do so.  This strongly suggests that if an employer wants to enforce a certain level of discipline for violation of certain policies, that needs to be part of the collective bargaining process.  In the case, the motion to vacate the arbitration award was denied.

Clearly the judge in this case did not agree with the recent decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Richfield, and determined it went beyond what was originally held in the State Auditor case.  We will only truly know how aggressively to respond to unfavorable arbitration awards with motions to vacate after the Supreme Court makes its decision in Richfield.  That could be in the coming days or weeks.  Hopefully we will not have too wait long.  In the interim, the Wiley Law Office is available to provide advice on how to deal with grievances and unfavorable arbitration awards.