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Court Defers To An Arbitrator’s Credibility Determinations (NY)

June 16, 2023

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New York courts have historically shown a deference to the arbitration process, particularly an arbitrator’s discretion and ability to make credibility determinations. Even in the labor arbitration setting, courts must generally accept an arbitrator’s credibility determinations.

The Appellate Division, Second Department recently reached this result in <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Matter-of-O-Brien-v.-Yonkers-City-Sch.-Dist.pdf">Matter of O' Brien v. Yonkers City Sch. Dist</a>.</em> In that case, a tenured teacher was charged with conduct unbecoming a teacher after he inappropriately restrained a student. The charges proceeded to arbitration where the teacher was found culpable, even where evidence suggested that the teacher may have acted appropriately, and the arbitrator recommended termination. The teacher commenced a proceeding to vacate the arbitrator’s determination, pursuant to CPLR article 75.

The Second Department observed that “where, as here, the obligation to arbitrate arises through a statutory mandate, the determination of the arbitrator is subject to 'closer judicial scrutiny' under CPLR 7511(b) than it would otherwise receive.” As such, “an award in a compulsory arbitration proceeding must have evidentiary support and cannot be arbitrary and capricious.” Applying this standard, the Court found that there was a rational basis and evidentiary support for the arbitrator’s findings, as the “Court must accept the arbitrator's credibility determinations, even where there is conflicting evidence and room for choice exists.”

However, the Court rejected the penalty of termination since the teacher had worked for the school system for 19 years and had an unblemished record. The Court found that the penalty was “so disproportionate to the offense as to be shocking to one's sense of fairness” and remanded the case for the imposition of a lesser penalty.

This case is an example of a New York court supporting an arbitrator’s credibility determinations in the face of contradictory evidence. The Court applied the “arbitrary and capricious” standard in accepting the arbitrator’s ruling, but ultimately found that the penalty was unfair under the circumstances.

Thank you to Rebecca Pasternak for her contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="agibbs@wcmlaw.com">Andrew Gibbs</a> with any questions.

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