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Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1300 v. Maryland Transit Administration

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

December 23, 2019

AMALGAMATED TRANSIT UNION, LOCAL 1300
v.
MARYLAND TRANSIT ADMINISTRATION

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-17-000103

          Meredith, Kehoe, Friedman, JJ.

          OPINION

          KEHOE, J.

         The Maryland Transit Administration ("MTA") fired Christopher Wilson because of an incident of workplace violence. Wilson challenged this decision. Pursuant to the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement between the MTA and the union representing Wilson, Local 1300 of the Amalgamated Transit Union ("Local 1300"), the matter was submitted to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled in Wilson's favor, deciding that the MTA did not have just cause to terminate Wilson, and ordered his reinstatement. The MTA filed a petition to vacate the arbitrator's award, and Local 1300 countered with a petition to enforce it. The Circuit Court for Baltimore City vacated the arbitration award and upheld Wilson's termination, concluding that the arbitrator's decision should not be enforced because it was "clearly against public policy." Local 1300 has appealed from the court's judgment and presents two issues, which we have reworded and reordered:

1. Did the trial court err by vacating the arbitration award on public-policy grounds?
2. In reaching its decision, did the trial court err in failing to consider Local 1300's timely filed response and cross-motion for summary judgment?
For the reasons explained below, we will affirm the circuit court's judgment.

         Background

         The incident

         This appeal arises out of a fight between Wilson, then an MTA bus driver, and Kenneth Rosebrough, a retired bus driver and Wilson's estranged stepfather. This fight was captured on MTA security cameras and was described in detail in the arbitrator's award. We will summarize the key events.

         At the end of his run on September 14, 2015, Wilson returned to the Northwest Bus Division, an administrative facility where MTA buses are parked. When Wilson went inside, he found Rosebrough waiting for him in the building's assembly room. Rosebrough got up and the two men conversed as they walked outside to the MTA's parking lot. By the time they were outside, their discussion had grown heated and things got physical. Rosebrough took a step toward Wilson, and Wilson pushed Rosebrough. The two started throwing punches. The men grabbed each other and wrestled themselves onto a nearby car, where two MTA employees broke up the fight. At some point during the brawl, Wilson stabbed Rosebrough in the stomach with a penknife. Rosebrough left the MTA property in his own car but was stopped by a police officer shortly thereafter. When the officer learned about Rosebrough's stab wound, he arranged for Rosebrough to be taken by ambulance to a hospital for treatment.

         At first, Wilson told investigators that Rosebrough brought the knife to the fight. Later, Wilson admitted that it was he who brought the knife-that he had accidentally left it in his pocket after breaking down boxes at home during his break.

         Wilson was charged with second-degree assault. On February 24, 2016, he tendered an Alford plea and was given probation before judgment. Wilson also faced consequences at work: on April 6, 2016, after a hearing, he was fired.

         The arbitration proceeding and the arbitral award

         The collective-bargaining agreement between the MTA and Local 1300 required that termination of employment be for "just cause." The agreement also provided that a terminated employee could request review of the MTA's decision by an arbitrator, and that the arbitrator's decision would be final and binding upon the parties. Wilson invoked his right to an arbitral review, and the arbitration proceeding was held on August 22, 2016.

         As a part of the proceeding, all parties were given a full opportunity to be heard, to present evidence and to examine and cross-examine witnesses. To justify the termination, the MTA pointed to Wilson's violations of MTA regulations and the MTA's workplace-violence policy. The MTA regulations subjected employees to "immediate dismissal" for, inter alia, possessing dangerous or deadly weapons on MTA property, for fighting on MTA property or for violating the workplace-violence policy. The workplace-violence policy prohibited "commit[ting] any violent act against any person" and "[b]ring[ing] weapons of any kind into the workplace"; encouraged employees to seek law-enforcement assistance when confronted with "violent situations" and to avoid confrontation with "verbally abusive or harassing persons"; and subjected employees engaging in prohibited conduct to sanctions, ranging from reprimand and loss of leave to suspension, demotion and termination.

         The arbitrator was unconvinced. In his written decision, the arbitrator found that Wilson's conduct on September 14, 2015, violated the clear language of the MTA's regulations and workplace-violence policy. He also refused to accept Wilson's defenses for the stabbing-that he acted in self-defense or that the MTA's lax security was to blame, because this allowed Rosebrough on the MTA's property in the first place. The arbitrator nonetheless concluded Wilson's termination "was not for just cause." He explained that, in reaching its decision to fire Wilson, the MTA had failed to consider mitigating circumstances surrounding his "respectable work and disciplinary records." The arbitrator also explained that by failing to "review[] all the facts and circumstances" to determine which among "a range of disciplinary penalties" would be the most proportionate sanction for Wilson's misconduct, the MTA's termination decision deviated from the model of progressive discipline called for by the administration's own policy.[1] Because he believed the MTA had improperly short-circuited this system of escalating responses to employee misconduct, the arbitrator ordered Wilson's reinstatement, although without back pay.

         Proceedings before the circuit court

         The MTA filed a petition, later amended, to vacate the arbitration award in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. The MTA's position was that enforcement of the arbitrator's award would violate Maryland's clear public policy against workplace violence and thus had to be vacated. In response, Local 1300 petitioned to enforce the award.

         The parties entered a joint stipulation in which they agreed upon filing deadlines for certain motions and responses. This included an August 30, 2017, deadline for Local 1300's response to the MTA's motion for summary judgment and its own cross-motion for summary judgment. The circuit court approved the joint stipulation and the parties filed motions for summary judgment and responses according to it. Specifically, the MTA filed its motion for summary judgment on August 2, 2017, and Local 1300 timely filed a response and its cross-motion for summary judgment on August 29, 2017.

         On September 1, 2017, the circuit court granted the MTA's motion for summary judgment. The court ruled that no genuine issues of material fact existed, and that the arbitration award could not be enforced because it violated public policy:

[T]he purpose of MTA's policy against workplace violence and possession of weapons is to ensure public safety . . . . Not only did Mr. Wilson violate the MTA workplace violence policy but he violated Maryland statutory criminal law. Mr. Wilson pled guilty to criminal conduct. . . . [T]he Arbitrator's award reinstating Christopher Wilson as a bus operator is contrary to MTA's duty to ensure public safety as a common carrier. This Court declines to enforce an arbitration award which is contrary to a clear public policy.

(references to docket entries omitted). Accordingly, the court vacated the arbitrator's award.

         The written opinion accompanying the September 1, 2017, order explicitly noted that Local 1300 had not filed a timely response to the MTA's motion for summary judgment. This was incorrect; Local 1300 had in fact filed a response on August 29. When this was brought to the court's attention, it reopened the case and scheduled a hearing for September 27, 2017.

         At that hearing, the court first explained its reasoning for granting the MTA's motion for summary judgment. The court then noted that it incorrectly believed that Local 1300 had not filed a response, and it informed counsel for the Local that "we're here today as if this was a fresh and a new motion." Still, after hearing argument from counsel, the court again granted the MTA's motion. In doing so, the court explained that it considered Local 1300's response to the MTA's motion for summary judgment to have been untimely filed; that after considering Local 1300's cross-motion for summary judgment "on its merits," the motion was nonetheless moot; and that the court's earlier order granting the MTA's motion for summary judgment "stands as the law of this case." The court vacated the arbitrator's decision reinstating Mr. Wilson on the grounds that it violated public policy.

         Local 1300 then timely filed this appeal.

         Analysis

         To this Court, Local 1300 raises a substantive and a procedural challenge to the circuit court's decision to grant summary judgment to the MTA and vacate the arbitral award reinstating Wilson.

         We will first address Local 1300's substantive challenge: that the circuit court improperly applied the requirements for vacating an arbitral award on public-policy grounds. In explaining why we disagree with Local 1300, we provide an overview of the general rule of judicial deference to the decisions of arbitrators and explain some of the common-law exceptions to that rule. We then apply the exception at issue here-the public-policy challenge to the enforceability of an arbitral award-to the facts of the case. We ...


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