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Court Upholds Arbitrator’s Opinion Reinstating Officer

Written on 12/10/2020
Will Aitchison

Andrew Kline is a police officer with the Township of Uwchlan in Pennsylvania. On October 26, 2018, Kline, Officer Warren Obenski and Sergeant David Balben responded to a domestic violence call. While at the caller’s residence, Obenski seized a black duffel bag on the suspicion that it contained illegal drugs. After arriving at the police station, Obenski processed the bag and reminded Kline that it could not be opened or searched until a search warrant was obtained.

Despite this warning, Kline searched the bag without a warrant, in the presence of Obenski, and discovered that it contained marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Kline subsequently drafted a police report documenting the events but did not mention his search of the bag in the report. A detective then applied for and obtained a search warrant using Kline’s police report as a basis to complete the affidavit of probable cause. Once it became apparent that Kline had unlawfully searched the bag, the Chester County District Attorney’s Office refused to move forward with a further investigation into the matter.

When the Township terminated Kline for his conduct, the Uwchlan Township Police Association challenged the termination in arbitration.

An arbitrator reduced the termination to a one-year suspension, citing Kline’s good work record, that Kline was an “eager” and “motivated” officer and that “from his demeanor at the hearing, I have full confidence in his explanation that his emotions got the better of him and his search of the bag was compelled by a conviction the police had prevailed in thwarting crime and a desire to see just how much illegality had been interdicted.” The Township then challenged the Arbitrator’s decision in court.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court upheld the Arbitrator’s opinion, rejecting the Township’s argument that that the Arbitrator exceeded his powers when he revised the Township’s discipline. The Court held that while “an arbitrator may not mandate that an illegal act be carried out, the Arbitrator’s award involved a term of employment and did not require the Township to perform an illegal act. Notably, the Township could have voluntarily imposed a one-year suspension instead of terminating Kline.

“It is well-established that under the narrow certiorari scope of review, the propriety of the Arbitrator’s factual findings is not subject to any review and is final. The Township’s assertion that the Arbitrator violated its due process rights by relying on extra-record evidence is not supported. Moreover, the Township attended the hearing, was represented by counsel, presented its case with witnesses and exhibits, and cross-examined Kline as well as the Association’s other witnesses. As such, the Township has failed to demonstrate how the Arbitrator violated its right to a full and fair hearing.”

Uwchlan Township v. Uwchlan Township Police Association, 2020 WL 5989879 (Penn. Cmwlth. 2020)

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