In Griggsville-Perry Community Unit School District No. 4 v. Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, the Illinois Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the significant deference given to arbitration awards arising out of collective bargaining agreements subject to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.

Griggsville-Perry Community Unit School District No. 4 had employed Angie Hires as a paraprofessional for 11 years. In 2007, the principal began to keep notes of her contacts with Hires in which the principal encouraged Hires to "smile more" and be more "positive" around students. The principal also recorded the following two incidents: a teacher reported negativity from Hires, and a parent complained that Hires was not treating students equally and fairly. However, neither incident was brought to Hires’ attention, investigated, or placed in her official personnel file. There was no evidence that Hires had ever been disciplined by the district, and Hires’ personnel file contained only three notes mentioning the principal’s reminders regarding her work attitude.

At the regularly scheduled February Board meeting, the Board asked the principal whether there were any staff members about whom she had concerns. After retrieving her personal notes and discussing them with the Board, the principal recommended that Hires be discharged. Hires had no notice that her performance would be discussed at this meeting.

Following the meeting, the superintendent provided written notice to Hires that, because she did not "relate well" to students and was "not always pleasant," she would be dismissed, and could respond to these deficiencies at the next Board meeting. The union filed a grievance, citing the lack of specificity in the allegations and the lack of notice, warning, and opportunity to respond to the alleged deficiencies. The Board denied the grievance, and after Hires appeared before the Board at its next meeting, the Board dismissed her.

The union proceeded to arbitration on its grievance. The collective bargaining agreement between the district and union required that, when a union member appeared before the Board on a disciplinary matter, the member be given "reasonable prior written notice of the reasons for such meeting." The arbitrator found that the district violated this provision by deciding to discharge Hires before first notifying her about the concerns regarding her job performance, and before affording her an opportunity to speak at a Board meeting.

The district had argued that the notice and hearing provision did not apply to Hires because the collective bargaining agreement did not state a standard for dismissal (such as just cause), and she was thus an at-will employee who could be discharged for any reason at all—even if the contract’s notice and hearing provision had been violated. The arbitrator disagreed. While declining to read into the agreement a just-cause standard (which the union had unsuccessfully bargained for), the arbitrator found that Hires could not be an at-will employee because the contractual provision requiring notice and a hearing would then be meaningless. The arbitrator instead applied a standard of arbitrariness, and found that the district violated the collective bargaining agreement when discharging Hires without specific notice and by giving her a hearing after the Board had already decided to dismiss her. The arbitrator awarded reinstatement.

The district challenged the award by refusing to comply with it, prompting the union to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB). After the IELRB confirmed the arbitrator’s award, the district appealed the decision to the appellate court, which reversed and found the arbitrator’s interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement to be "clearly erroneous." The union and the IELRB then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Court explained that the role of a court reviewing an arbitrator’s award is "extremely limited" and quite deferential: a court does not review the correctness of the arbitrator’s interpretation of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, but instead determines whether the arbitrator’s award "draws its essence" from that agreement. Here, the arbitrator’s award was clearly rooted in an interpretation of the notice and hearing provision in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. As a result, it drew its essence from the contract and the award should be, and was, affirmed.

This case reaffirms the deference given by the Illinois courts to arbitration awards, and the challenges faced by the parties who seek to overturn those awards on appeal.