Beaumont Court of Appeals reinstates arbitrator award for City in civil service termination.
City of Beaumont, Texas v. James Mathews, 09-20-00053-CV (Tex. App. – Beaumont, Feb. 3, 2022)
This is a civil service/collective bargaining/arbitrator appeal (which has gone up and down the court of appeals route already) where the Beaumont Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order and reinstated the arbitrator’s award. [Comment: warning, this is a 38-page opinion].
Firefighter Mathews was discharged from the City of Beaumont Fire Department after a formal investigation into a rear-end collision involving Mathews occurred. Driver Freeman apparently rear-ended the vehicle driven by Mathews, causing Mathews to exit his vehicle and strike Freeman one or more times. The incident occurred while Mathews was off-duty, but the department’s rules and regulations apply certain standards of conduct regardless of duty status. The arbitrator admitted a statement from Freeman asserting such, which was corroborated by other evidence. Mathews appealed the termination to an arbitrator, who ultimately ruled in favor of the City, confirming Mathews’ termination. Mathews appealed to the district court, which reversed the arbitrator’s award, holding the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction and exceeded his jurisdiction. The City appealed.
The court found that Mathews timely filed an appeal of the termination, selected to proceed before an arbitrator and that Mathews signed the appeal letter. By doing so, he triggered the arbitrator procedure. Mathews argued the notice of dismissal Chief Huff gave him failed to advise him he had the right under the Act to appeal before either the Commission or a neutral arbitrator. But the question is whether the lack of that information is jurisdictional when the record shows the firefighter was aware of the options that were available to him under the Act. Mathews never testified he was unaware he could select arbitration or civil service commission as an appeal forum. Likewise, Chief Huff never testified that she told Mathews he could appeal only to a neutral arbitrator. Mathews’ appeal letter cited the exact sections in the Act that provide firefighters with options in choosing the forum where they may appeal. In fact, the evidence shows just the opposite, as the live pleadings indicate it was because of the Union’s distrust of the Beaumont civil service commission that Mathews selected the arbitrator. While Chief Huff’s notice does not contain clear and unambiguous language regarding the options it did notify Mathews that he should look to the Collective Bargaining Agreement to decide how to proceed. Here, the record conclusively proves that Mathews decided after seeking advice from his union that it was in his best interest to demand his appeal be heard by a neutral arbitrator rather than going before a Commission. As a result, the arbitrator’s jurisdiction was properly triggered. Next, under the Act, neutral arbitrators exceed their jurisdiction when they conduct the proceedings in a manner “not authorized by the Act or [a manner that is] contrary to it, or when they invade the policy-setting realm protected by the nondelegation doctrine.” The City filed pretrial motions with attached evidence and the arbitrator denied the motions. During the evidentiary hearing, the City submitted some of the same evidence, which was admitted by the arbitrator. Mathews argued the arbitrator improperly considered evidence submitted through the pretrial motion procedure instead of exclusively at the evidentiary hearing. The district court held the arbitrator could not consider pretrial evidence or motions. However, the Act allows the parties to file pretrial motions and expressly states it is not a violation of the Act as long as copies of the filings are served on the opposing party. Thus, the City did nothing wrong by filing a pretrial motion since the certificate of service states the City served the motion on Mathews’ legal representative and Mathews never raised a lack of service. In turn, the arbitrator did not violate the Act by conducting a hearing on the City’s motion. Next, the court held that the record does not demonstrate the arbitrator considered evidence that was not admitted during the evidentiary hearing. As factfinders, neutral arbitrators are the sole judges of the admissibility of the evidence and the weight and credibility to be given the evidence admitted during a final hearing. Comparing the arbitrator’s findings of fact and conclusions with the evidence presented during the hearing, the court determined the arbitrator relied upon the evidence admitted at the final hearing. The district court conducted a factual and legal sufficiency review of the evidence, but that is not authorized by the Act. District court’s appellate review of arbitrator decisions are restricted to jurisdictional grounds and claims the award was procured by fraud, collusion, or through the use of other unlawful means. As a matter of law, the record present does not allow the district court to reverse the arbitrator’s decision. The district court’s order and final judgment have deprived the City of the statutory benefit of an efficient and speedy resolution through the Act. As a result, the district court’s order was reversed and the arbitrator’s decision was reinstated.
If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Golemon, Justice Kreger and Justice Horton. Memorandum Opinion by Justice Horton