County Superior Court Richard A. Licht Associate Justice
Plaintiff: Dylan B. Conley, Esq.
Defendants: Elizabeth A. Wiens, Esq. Marc B. Gursky, Esq.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and
Gilbert V. Indeglia, Associate Justice
the Court is an appeal from a Providence County Superior
Court hearing justice's decision granting a motion to
vacate an arbitration award in favor of the defendants, the
Cumberland Town Employees Union and Norman Tremblay
(Tremblay) (collectively, the union), brought by the
plaintiff, the Town of Cumberland (the town), and denying the
union's cross-petition to confirm the same. This matter came
before the Supreme Court on March 8, 2018, pursuant to an
order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the
issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided.
After considering the arguments set forth in the parties'
memoranda and at oral argument, we are convinced that cause
has not been shown. Thus, further argument or briefing is not
required to decide this matter. For the reasons outlined
below, the Superior Court judgment in favor of the town is
vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to
confirm the arbitration award.
Facts and Travel
was employed by the town's highway department as a light
equipment operator for nearly thirteen years. At all relevant
times, a collective bargaining agreement (the CBA) entered
into between the town and the union governed his employment.
On August 5, 2014, Tremblay "rolled" his ankle at
work, tearing tendons and ligaments. As a result, he could
not work, and he required surgery to repair the damage before
he could resume his position. After encountering numerous
health insurance delays, on June 24, 2015, Tremblay underwent
his long-awaited surgery, but did not return to work while he
his absence, Tremblay remained a town employee, continuing to
pay his union dues and contributing toward his health
insurance benefits. Throughout that time, he maintained
regular contact with the union, as well as with the town by
way of its human resources department. At no point did the
town inform Tremblay that he should request a leave of
absence, and thus he did not do so.
November 10, 2015, Tremblay received a letter from the
town's human resources department notifying him that his
right to seek reinstatement to his position was terminated
pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 28-33-47(c)(1)(vi) of the
Workers' Compensation Act (the WCA). In support of that
notice of termination, the town relied on the fact that a
period in excess of one year had elapsed since his injury.
days after Tremblay received the letter, the union filed a
grievance on his behalf, arguing that he had been terminated
without just cause, in violation of Article 13.1 of the
CBA.His grievance was held in abeyance until
the conclusion of a separate workers' compensation suit.
Once that suit resolved, Tremblay followed the procedure for
filing a grievance dictated in Article 4 of the
based on that article, he brought his grievance first to the
town's human resources department and then to the mayor.
Each denied his grievance. Dissatisfied, the union filed an
arbitration demand on Tremblay's behalf pursuant to
Article 4.4 of the CBA. In the interim, on May 4, 2016,
Tremblay was formally cleared to return to work.
arbitrator conducted a hearing regarding Tremblay's
grievance on August 11, 2016, framing the relevant issues as
(1) whether the grievance should be sustained; and (2) if so,
what should be the appropriate remedy? The town argued
primarily that the grievance was not arbitrable because
§ 28-33-47(d) grants the Workers' Compensation Court
exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes. Further,
the town maintained that, per the WCA, Tremblay had lost his
right to reinstatement as a matter of law when his absence
exceeded one year, thus he no longer had an arbitrable claim
for reinstatement. It continued that because "the
termination actually occurred by operation of law and not by
action of the [t]own, * * * Tremblay's quarrel is with
the law, not the [t]own." Based on that contention, the
town asserted that, to dispute his termination, Tremblay must
challenge § 28-33-47(c)(1)(vi) in Workers'
Compensation Court to restore his reinstatement right
because, absent that right, there was no contract right upon
which the town could infringe.
union countered that the town violated the CBA by terminating
Tremblay without just cause because Article 20.2 of the
contemplated a leave of absence of up to two
years.The union avowed that the WCA
"specifically preserves superior contractual rights, and
leaves intact contractual claims to enforce those
right[s]." Moreover, the union asserted that, while the
WCA grants a one-year reinstatement right, "it does not
trump the more generous provision of the CBA[, ]" citing
to § 28-33-47(b) of the WCA in support of that
written decision on December 13, 2016, the arbitrator
concluded that Tremblay's grievance was arbitrable. His
decision explained that the grievance had merit because
"[b]efore November 10 there [was] no indication that the
[t]own did not consider Tremblay covered by the [CBA] and
entitled to the protections of the [CBA]." He opined
that Tremblay was still entitled to the benefits that the CBA
afforded him because he "never ceased to be regarded as
an employee and was not seeking reinstatement as contemplated
by the statute." In closing, he directed the town to
reinstate Tremblay with full back pay and without the loss of
Providence County Superior Court, the town petitioned to stay
and to vacate the arbitration award, and the union filed a
cross-petition to confirm and to enforce the same. On January
31, 2017, a Superior Court hearing justice heard argument on
the motions. On February 23, 2017, he issued a written
decision granting the town's motion to vacate the award,
explicating that the language of the statute clearly and
unambiguously gave the Workers' Compensation Court
exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes. He
further explained that the CBA's seniority provision
protected only an injured worker's right to return to the
same level of seniority and did not serve as authority
whereby the CBA could supersede the WCA's jurisdictional
grant. The union timely appealed to this Court.
"judicial authority to review or to vacate an
arbitration award is limited, [this Court] must * * *
[vacate] the award * * * [when] the arbitrator or arbitrators
exceed * * * their powers." State v. Rhode Island
Alliance of Social Services Employees, Local 580, SEIU,
747 A.2d 465, 468 (R.I. 2000) (quoting Rhode Island
Council 94, AFSCME, AFL-CIO v. State, 714 A.2d 584,
587-88 (R.I. 1998)). "One sure way for an arbitrator to
exceed his or her powers is to arbitrate a dispute that is
not arbitrable in the first place." Id. In
analyzing whether an issue is arbitrable, "[a] more
searching standard of judicial review governs * * * than our
limited review of the substantive arbitration award."
State Department of Corrections v. Rhode Island
Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, 866 A.2d 1241,
1247 (R.I. 2005). Arbitrability is a question of law that we
review de novo. Id.
cases where arbitrability precipitates a question of
statutory interpretation, it is also relevant to note that
"when a statutory section is clear and unambiguous, we
apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the statute and we
need not delve into any further statutory
interpretation." Grasso v. Raimondo, 177 A.3d
482, 489 (R.I. 2018).
properly focusing our inquiry, we must carefully narrow the
issue that is before us. To do so, we turn to the salient