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Workers comp law precludes arbitration over employee termination

Arbitration agreement

A man who waited too long to request his job back after an on-the-job injury is not entitled to arbitration under a collective bargaining agreement because Rhode Island workers compensation law trumps such provisions, a state court ruled.

Norman Tremblay, was a light equipment operator for the Cumberland, Rhode Island, Highway Department in August 2014 when he rolled his ankle at the bottom of stairs. Mr. Tremblay had surgery for the injury in June 2015 following recommendations by three independent doctors and insurance approval, court records show. Mr. Tremblay never requested a leave of absence and was never told he had to return to work within a certain time, court documents show.

In November 2015, the town terminated Mr. Tremblay in a letter, saying it was obvious he was unable to return to his job due to the injury, and cited Rhode Island’s Workers’ Compensation Act, which removes the worker’s right to reinstatement one year from the date of injury. Mr. Tremblay filed a grievance with the Cumberland Town Employees Union, which had a collective bargaining agreement with the town, saying he was wrongfully terminated without just cause in violation of the agreement, court records show.

The union filed a demand for arbitration seeking reinstatement on Mr. Tremblay’s behalf in August 2016, but the town argued that the grievance was not arbitrable under state law that says the Workers’ Compensation Court has exclusive jurisdiction over reinstatement disputes, court records show. The arbitrator found that the grievance was arbitrable and ordered that Mr. Tremblay be reinstated because he was wrongfully terminated. The town filed a petition with the Rhode Island Superior Court and a motion to vacate the arbitration order in December.

The superior court considered whether the grievance was arbitrable, and agreed with the town that it was not in a ruling on Monday.

The court found that the meaning of the state’s workers comp act unambiguously directs grievances about reinstatement to be brought before the state Workers’ Compensation Court and that state law trumps collective bargaining agreement provisions. As such, the court ruled the arbitrator exceeded his powers and granted the town’s motion to vacate the arbitration award. 



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