Ronald James, a corrections officer with Berks County, Pennsylvania, was seated at a desk in the common hall of the prison’s E-Unit when he observed an inmate attempting to cover the cell door window with a towel in violation of safety regulations. James opened the cell door electronically from a control panel so that he could direct the inmate to take down the towel. The inmate came out of his cell, became extremely agitated, and yelled, “What, I can’t put up a curtain?”
When James replied, “No, you can’t,” the inmate began yelling obscenities. As James approached the inmate and repeatedly ordered him to return to his cell, the inmate continued to argue and yell profanities. When James came within a few feet of the inmate, James removed pepper spray from his holster, shook it, and once again ordered the inmate to return to the cell. When the inmate refused, James sprayed him. However, the spray was ineffective because the inmate had turned his head and covered his face with the towel.
At that point, James took the inmate down to the floor. With the assistance of another officer, the pair applied physical force in an attempt to subdue the inmate, who had his hands beneath him. James struck the inmate two times at the head and neck area with horizontal elbow strikes. James then called for assistance. As James and and the other officers were still unable to pull the inmate’s arms out from under him and the inmate was still actively resisting and being combative, James proceeded to administer four more strikes to the inmate’s head and neck area. After James administered the strikes, the officers were able to free the inmate’s arms and place him in handcuffs.
The County suspended James for five days, believing he used excessive force to subdue the inmate. Teamsters Local Union 429 challenged the decision in arbitration. When an arbitrator found no just cause for the discipline, the County elevated the case to a Pennsylvania state appeals court.
The County’s argument was that the Arbitrator’s award violated public policy. The Court began with a three-step analysis for application of the public policy exception, an analysis that requires “that the Court (1) identify the nature of the conduct leading to the discipline; (2) determine if that conduct implicates a well-defined and dominant public policy; and (3) determine if the award poses an unacceptable risk that it will undermine the implicated policy and cause the public employer to breach its lawful obligations or public duty, given the particular circumstances at hand and the Arbitrator’s fact findings.
“We turn to the first prong, identifying the nature of the conduct leading to the discipline. Here, the conduct was James’s alleged use of unjustified and excessive force exceeding that which was necessary to achieve the inmate’s compliance. However, the Arbitrator made binding findings of fact in determining that there was no just cause for the five-day suspension. Both officers involved in the incident testified that they considered the inmate to be an active resister and the Arbitrator credited their testimony that they perceived a threatening situation. Consequently, the Arbitrator determined that the level of force was justified and not excessive.
“The second prong requires the Court to determine whether the conduct implicates a well-defined public policy, as opposed to general considerations of supposed public interests. Indubitably, there is an important public policy interest in guarding against the mistreatment of incarcerated individuals. Acknowledgement of this important policy is also evident from the County’s procedures providing that a use of force should not exceed the amount of force required to restrain an inmate, and that an officer should apply only the least amount of force reasonably necessary to achieve an authorized purpose and should only use force when other methods of control have proven insufficient. Again, the binding facts as found by the Arbitrator do not establish that James exceeded those boundaries.
“The third prong requires the Court to determine whether the award poses an unacceptable risk that it will undermine the implicated policy and cause the public employer to breach its lawful obligations or public duty, given the particular circumstances at hand and the Arbitrator’s fact findings. The question here, therefore, is whether the award poses an unacceptable risk that will undermine the public policy of guarding against the mistreatment of incarcerated individuals and cause the County to breach its lawful obligations or public duty. As noted, the Arbitrator credited James’s testimony as to his perception of the inmate as an active resister and his view that the inmate’s combativeness and level of resistance constituted a perceived threat to himself, and others of imminent assault had the inmate arisen before the officers were able to handcuff him. Consequently, the third prong is not met.
“Accordingly, enforcement of the award does not violate the defined public policy of protecting inmates from mistreatment or excessive use of force. For the above reasons, therefore, we affirm the Arbitrator’s decision.”
County of Berks, Pennsylvania, 53 PPER ¶ 65 (Penn. Cmwlth. 2022).
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