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COA orders court to determine whether driver fired for just cause

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The Indiana Court of Appeals held Tuesday that a St. Joseph Circuit judge erred by granting summary judgment in favor of a school corporation instead of making an independent determination of whether a school bus driver was discharged for just cause.

Lula L. Jenkins was fired from her job as a bus driver for South Bend Community School Corp. after it was determined she violated two work rules by allowing a child to ride her bus past the child’s destination and into the school corporation’s maintenance facility. She and the union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 62, and AFL-CIO Local 686, filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement. Article 4 of the CBA sets forth the four-step grievance procedure and defines what is a grievance. Article 4 also provides that “[t]he grievance and arbitration provisions of this article are an exclusive remedy. With respect to every arbitration, the decision of the arbitrator shall be advisory to the Superintendent and not binding on either party.”

A neutral arbitrator determined that just cause didn’t exist to support Jenkins’ discharge and issued an order that she be reinstated with back pay, benefits and seniority. The school corporation declined, saying the order is merely advisory based on Article 4. Jenkins and the union then sought a de novo judicial review of whether the CBA was violated.

St. Joseph Circuit Judge Michael Gotsch granted the SBCSC’s motion for summary judgment without conducting a de novo review of whether the CBA was violated. He concluded the SBCSC was within its right to fire Jenkins and that the superintendent wasn’t contractually compelled to follow the advisory opinion of the arbitrator.

“In this case, we conclude that the ‘exclusive remedy’ provision of the CBA at issue here was intended to function only as an exhaustion-of-administrative-remedies provision and not as a bar to Jenkins’s exercise of her right to free and open courts and their remedies,” Judge James Kirsch wrote. “Thus, under this CBA Jenkins must proceed through the grievance procedure prior to resorting to judicial review of her claims. The advisory nature of the arbitrator’s award allows the non-prevailing party, here SBCSC, to reject the award, thus triggering judicial review, either under the (Indiana Uniform Arbitration Act’s) provisions or for a determination whether the facts found by the arbitrator support the award. Consequently, we find that the trial court erred by declining to make that determination and by entering summary judgment in favor of SBCSC.”

The appellate court remanded Lula L. Jenkins, et al. v. South Bend Community School Corp., 71A03-1206-PL-260, for further proceedings.

 

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