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Arbitrator's Decision to Reinstate Teacher Failed the Essence Test and Violated Well Established Public Policy of Protecting Students from Sexual Harassment on School Grounds

December 18, 2012

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has held that an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate a teacher to the classroom after finding he was guilty of inappropriately touching seventh grade female students during academic instruction was not rationally derived from the relevant collective bargaining agreement, and thus, failed the “essence test” under which an award is valid only so long as it draws the essence from the collective bargaining agreement.

The teacher at the center of this case, Michael Lehotsky, had been employed with the District since 1991. In 2009, Mr. Lehotsky was terminated on several grounds, most notably, for violating the District’s policy on sexual harassment. Consistent with the teachers’ union’s collective bargaining agreement, Mr. Lehotsky received sufficient pre-discharge notices and opportunities to respond to the charges against him to satisfy the essential due process requirements.

The matter of Mr. Lehotsky’s termination was referred to an Arbitrator, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, for a final and binding resolution. The Arbitrator found that Mr. Lehotsky had engaged in “grievous misconduct” worthy of termination, however, he ordered that Mr. Lehotsky be reinstated, with back pay, because the district failed to adhere to the due process procedure outlined in the district’s sexual harassment policy and thus violated the teacher’s due process rights.

The district sought judicial review of the arbitrator’s decision. An Administrative Judge, for the Court of Common Pleas, Judge O’Brien, determined the arbitrator had applied an incorrect legal standard and vacated the arbitration award. The Judge concluded that the arbitrator based his award on a due process procedure outlined in a school policy, which was not part of the relevant collective bargaining agreement, rather than on a finding that the district did not prove just cause to discharge Mr. Lehotsky. As such, the arbitrator’s decision was not rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement, and thus failed the “essence test” under which an award is legitimate only so long as it draws its essence from the pertinent collective bargaining agreement. As such, Judge O’Brien affirmed the district’s decision to terminate Mr. Lehotsky.

The Teachers’ Union appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court agreed that the arbitrator applied an incorrect legal standard in reaching his conclusion and affirmed Judge O’Brien’s decision. The Court noted that because the teachers' contract did not address procedure for responding to a sexual harassment complaint, the arbitrator improperly relied on the procedure outlined in the district's sexual harassment policy. Beyond that technical ruling, however, the Court also said Judge O'Brien was correct to vacate the award because the arbitrator’s decision violated the well established public policy of protecting students from sexual harassment during school hours.

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