On Friday morning, the Illinois Supreme Court delivered a strong reminder of the importance of arbitration proceedings in labor disputes.  The Court unanimously reaffirmed the highly deferential standard applied to judicial review of an arbitrator’s decision in an opinion by Justice Anne M. Burke in Griggsville-Perry Community Unit School District No. 4. v. Illinois Educational Labor Relations BoardOur in-depth review of the facts and lower court rulings is here. Our pre-argument preview is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

Griggsville-Perry arose from a school board’s firing of a noncertified paraprofessional who worked in an elementary school library. In 2007, her school principal approached the employee and told her that the school board had received complaints about her performance. The principal began keeping a notebook of events relating to the employee’s performance.  The principal spoke with the employee about her performance twice more during 2007, noting both discussions in the notebook (which was not, however, included in the employee’s file).  The following year the principal recommended that the school board fire the employee. The superintendent of the district notified the employee that she would be fired at an upcoming meeting. The superintendent and principal met with the employee and her union representative twice, and items from her file were produced to her. The employee and her union representative appeared before the school board and the employee testified, but the board decided to fire her anyway.

The union filed a grievance, and after a hearing, the arbitrator ordered the employee reinstated. When the board refused, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge. The arbitrator once again ordered reinstatement, and the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board affirmed. The Appellate Court reversed the Board, finding that the employee had received all the due process she was entitled to under the labor contract.  The Court held that the arbitrator had "applied his own brand of industrial justice" by "reading a just-cause standard into the agreement" without support either in the integrated contract or the drafting history.

Although the Supreme Court seemed conflicted about the case during oral argument, in the end the Court had no trouble reversing. The arbitrator’s decision turned on his interpretation of section 2.6 of the parties’ collective-bargaining agreement, which provided that employees must be "give[n] reasonable prior written notice of the reasons" for a disciplinary meeting. The court held that the arbitrator’s decision was subject to highly deferential review based on this amorphous standard: "[the arbitrator’s] award is legitimate only so long as it draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement." The court summarily concluded that "the arbitrator’s determination that the District had violated section 2.6 was clearly rooted in an interpretation of the contract." Accordingly, the court concluded that the Appellate Court "erred in reviewing and rejecting" the arbitrator’s decision.

In the alternative, the District argued that even if section 2.6 of the union contract required some sort of due process, any violations were harmless since the plaintiff was an at-will employee. The court rejected the District’s argument. The court acknowledged that the parties had considered and rejected a standard of dismissal for just cause, but concluded that the arbitrator was nevertheless free to conclude that employees had limited protection from being terminated as a result of an arbitrary proceeding.