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The City of Guthrie Oklahoma v. Fraternal Order of Police

Court of Appeals of Oklahoma, Division II

January 25, 2017

THE CITY OF GUTHRIE, OKLAHOMA, a municipal corporation, Plaintiff/Appellant,
FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE, LODGE #105, Defendant/Appellee, and MARK BRUNING, Intervenor/Appellee.

          Mandate Issued: 02/23/2017


          Tony G. Puckett, MCAFEE & TAFT, A PROFESSIONAL CORPORATION, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Plaintiff/Appellant.

          Jarrod A. Leaman, JAMES R. MOORE & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Defendant/Appellee.

          R. Scott Adams, ADAMS & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for Intervenor/Appellee.


         ¶1 Plaintiff/Appellant The City of Guthrie, Oklahoma, a municipal corporation, (the City) appeals from an order of the trial court granting a motion for summary judgment by Intervenor/Appellee Mark Bruning (Bruning) to enforce an arbitration award on his behalf and that of the Defendant/Appellee Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #105 (Lodge 105), and denying the City's counter motion to vacate the "remedy portion of the award" because, for various reasons, the arbitrator exceeded his authority under the parties' Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). We conclude the trial court's decision should be affirmed.


         ¶2 Bruning was a police officer for the Guthrie Police Department. The circumstances giving rise to the arbitration occurred at a concert held in Guthrie during which Bruning arrested his then girlfriend's ex-husband for public intoxication. Bruning arrested the man despite an Incident Action Plan (IAP) issued by the Chief of Police directing officers to make arrests only as a last resort. A holding pen and other options short of arrest were available to officers. Written complaints about Bruning's actions were made to the police department and an internal investigation was conducted by the Chief of Police pursuant to the terms of the CBA. The Chief of Police then forwarded the results to a Disciplinary Hearing Panel consisting of, among others, the Human Resources Director. After a hearing in which witnesses testified, the Hearing Panel unanimously determined Bruning should be discharged for various violations of Guthrie Police Department policy and recommended termination. That determination was forwarded to the City Manager who upheld the recommendation. Bruning was terminated from employment with the City.

         ¶3 Lodge 105 filed a grievance over Bruning's discharge and, pursuant to the CBA, requested arbitration. The parties submitted post-hearing briefs.

         ¶4 The arbitrator found that "[g]iven the nature of the charges and the severity of the penalty imposed, " the City had the burden "to prove by clear and convincing evidence the decision to terminate [Bruning's] employment was for just cause." Referencing the CBA's definition of just cause and that just cause was to be in accord with City of Lawton v. International Union of Police Associations, Local 24, 2000 OK CIV APP 2, 996 P.2d 954, cert. denied (Mathis), the arbitrator determined: "To this arbitrator, the rule in Mathis simply states the widely accepted principle that just cause requires discipline be issued in a manner that is not arbitrary and capricious." After setting forth the facts pertaining to Bruning's alleged misconduct and the facts pertaining to the conduct of the investigation and the decision-making process leading to the decision to terminate Bruning, the arbitrator determined as follows:

The City established by clear and convincing evidence that [Bruning's] conduct warranted punishment, up to and including termination. However, [I find] both parties are at fault in this matter, [Bruning] for exercising poor judgment and abuse of power, and the City Manager and Human Resources Director for being influenced by allegations without any verification. The result was an unfounded and unacceptable bias against [Bruning] during the investigation and decision making process. The City Manager and the Human Resources Director acted in a way that was arbitrary and capricious, therefore the Disciplinary Hearing Panel's finding that there was just cause for the decision to terminate [Bruning's] employment cannot stand.

         The arbitrator further found severe discipline was warranted by Bruning's conduct and instructed the City to place Bruning on suspension for six months without pay and to thereafter reinstate him to his rank of Lieutenant.

         ¶5 The City filed a petition to vacate the arbitrator's decision in the trial court. Thereafter, the parties filed various pleadings and motions, including motions and counter motions for summary judgment. After considering the parties' motions, responses, and replies and supporting briefs and oral argument, the trial court denied the City's counter motion for summary judgment, granted Bruning's motion for summary judgment, and ordered enforcement of the arbitration award. The City appeals.


         ¶6 "The fundamental purpose of arbitration is to preclude court intervention into the merits of disputes when arbitration has been provided for contractually." Voss v. City of Okla. City, 1980 OK 148, ¶ 5, 618 P.2d 925. The standard applicable to review of an arbitrator's award is well established in Oklahoma.

Once it is established that there is a collective bargaining agreement with an arbitration clause broad enough to include the dispute, the role of this Court is strictly limited to determining whether the arbitrator exceeded his authority under the collective bargaining agreement. Affording great deference to the decision of the arbitrator, we will not review the factual or legal findings of the arbitrator nor consider the merits of the award.... Hence, this Court may only consider whether the arbitrator's decision "draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement."

City of Yukon v. Internat'l Ass'n of Firefighters, Local 2055, 1990 OK 48, ¶ 8, 792 P.2d 1176 (citations omitted).

         ¶7 Statutory construction presents a question of law, State v. Tate, 2012 OK 31, ¶ 7, 276 P.3d 1017, and, consequently, requires a de novo review standard, id.; Kluver v. Weatherford Hosp. Auth., 1993 OK 85, ¶ 14, 859 P.2d 1081.


         ¶8 The City raises six issues on appeal all of which assert the district court erred in failing to vacate the remedy portion of the arbitrator's award. [1] Lodge 105 and Bruning argue the arbitrator interpreted the CBA, as he is authorized to do under the CBA, and found no just cause for termination; consequently, they argue the trial court did not err in enforcing the arbitration award. We have grouped the City's propositions into three issues.

         I. Just Cause ...

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