“Reasonably Debatable”: Arbitrator’s Award of Pay for Ten-Minute Police Muster Period Upheld

Policemen’s Benevolent Ass’n v. City of Trenton, 205 N.J. 422 (2011).  The City of Trenton ordered certain employees to report for “muster” ten minutes before their shifts were to start, so that roll calls could be completed and the personnel promptly deployed on patrol.  The “muster” time was to be without pay.  Plaintiff PBA filed a grievance, and the matter went to binding arbitration.  The arbitrator reviewed the entire contract between the PBA and the City and ruled for the PBA.  The case found its way to the Supreme Court, which split 4-3 in favor of the PBA, thereby affirming the viewpoint of the Appellate Division.  Justice Long wrote the majority opinion, while Chief Justice Rabner wrote a dissent for himself and Justices Hoens and Rivera-Soto.

The City relied on contractual language that said that “no overtime shall be paid” for muster time.  But elsewhere in the agreement, on other subjects, the parties used the phrase “no additional compensation” instead.  The arbitrator found that the parties’ decision not to state that there would be “no additional compensation” for muster time meant that there could still be “additional compensation,” just not overtime.  The Supreme Court majority accepted that viewpoint.

Justice Long’s opinion discussed at length the fact that the standard of review of an arbitrator’s decision is whether that ruling is “reasonably debatable.”  That is a “high level of deference” that springs from the strong public policy in favor of using arbitration to resolve labor-management disputes.  Justice Long emphasized that the City’s viewpoint might have been a viable one, and that the arbitrator’s conclusion may or may not have been “the best one.”  However, “[t]hat is not the standard.  What is required is that the arbitrator’s interpretation finds support in the Agreement, and it does.”

Judge Stern was the fourth vote in the majority in this case.  Justice Rivera-Soto had previously stated that he would not vote in cases where Judge Stern’s vote “affects the outcome of the case.”  Justice Rivera-Soto voted here.  Perhaps that is because, without Judge Stern’s vote, the 4-3 vote would have become 3-3, thereby resulting in an affirmance of the Appellate Division’s decision anyway, though a 3-3 affirmance, unlike the 4-3 ruling here, would not have had any precedential effect.  Had Justice Rivera-Soto declined to vote, the score would have been 4-2, still resulting in a precedential affirmance.  Justice Rivera-Soto did not explain his decision to vote.