UCMC files lawsuit against arbitration award to reinstate a former employee

“The medical center filed the complaint to overturn the arbitrator’s reinstatement award because we believed it was in the best interests of our patients and employee.”

By Anjali Dhillon

The University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC) filed a lawsuit last month against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 743, which represents clerical and maintenance employees at UCMC. The complaint requests the reversal of an arbitration award that orders UCMC to reinstate a former employee after his termination in March 2013.

In 2013, the UCMC dismissed Lester Land, a custodial assistant for the Environmental Services Department, after a three-month investigation by UCMC found he had used intimidating and violent language about his supervisor to his colleague. The colleague reported that Land had threatened to cause his supervisor bodily harm. In the termination letter, UCMC said that Land had violated Medical Center policies by threatening a co-worker’s life and providing false information in the course of the investigation.

The Teamsters responded to Land’s termination by filing a grievance on his behalf. It argued that Land was not terminated for a just cause because the sole evidence was what he had allegedly said to a co-worker. The burden of proof of policy violation was on UCMC, and the medical center had not adequately bore it, according to the Teamsters.

When discussions addressing this grievance did not reach a settlement, both parties decided to move the case to arbitration, or talks overseen by the court, for a legally binding resolution determined by an arbitrator. The arbitration would determine whether Land’s termination was fair, and if not, what the correct solution would be.

Arbitration was prolonged when the initial Arbitrator Raymond E. McAlpin retired in the middle of the case, and Arbitrator Steven Briggs was brought on to the case.  In addition, the co-worker who reported Land did not honor a subpoena to testify.

Briggs concluded that Land was not discharged for just cause, and decided on an arbitration award that ordered the UCMC to reinstate Land to his former position. Briggs reasoned that while Land’s comments in private were serious, they were not grounds for discharge. He came to this conclusion because Land had never directly threatened his supervisor, other employees, or the coworker who had reported him. Briggs also notes that at the time of his termination, Land had worked for 24 years at the UCMC. However, in response to this conduct, Land is to return to his job without back pay or benefits.

In response, the UCMC filed last month’s complaint to vacate the arbitration award. It argues that the arbitration award does not accurately represent parties’ collective bargaining efforts. UCMC also believes the arbitrator’s decision violates public policy because Briggs reinstated the employee even though Land had made vulgar and violent threats repeatedly.

“The medical center filed the complaint to overturn the arbitrator’s reinstatement award because we believed it was in the best interests of our patients and employees,” Lorna Wong, a representative of UCMC, wrote in an email.

The Teamster litigation counsel declined to comment, as this is an ongoing case.