Arbitration: Nevada Supreme Court Clarifies Common Law for Private Award (Web)

In Clark County Education Association v. Clark County School District, No. 43306, 2006 WL 798994 (Nevada S. Ct. March 30, 2006) (available at http://www.nvsupremecourt.us/documents/advOpinions/122NevAdvOpNo30.html), the Nevada Supreme Court, applying common-law grounds for reviewing a private arbitration award, upheld an arbitrator's decision in an employment dispute between a school district and bargaining unit representing a former teacher.

The former teacher, Isabell Stuart, was an English Learning Language instructor for Nevada's Clark County School District in Las Vegas. She was a member of the bargaining unit for which the Clark County Education Association is the recognized bargaining agent. Stuart received three admonitions from the district for failing to follow proper protocols and procedures when administering tests.

The district gave Stuart with additional training after each of the first two admonitions. After the third admonition, Stuart was suspended, and eight days later was sent a letter stating that the superintendent was recommending that her employment contract with the district not be renewed.
When the district decided not renew her contract eight days after the third admonishment was issued, Stuart filed a claim with the association, which proceeded to private arbitration as per the collective bargaining agreement.

In arbitration, Stuart and the association claimed that the district, by dismissing Stuart only eight days before her admonishment was issued, had violated the requirements of NRS 391.313, a Nevada statute which requires that "a certified teacher must be admonished for each diverse and dissimilar type of conduct before being dismissed for unprofessional conduct."

The arbitrator, however, upheld the district's decision to suspend and fire Stuart.

Stuart and education association filed a petition in the district court to vacate the arbitrator's decision, claiming, again, that the district had failed to comply with NRS 391.313 since it was dismissing Stuart so soon after the third admonishment. The district court determined that the arbitrator's decision was not arbitrary and capricious, that the arbitrator did not disregard NRS 391.313 and that the arbitrator's award should be upheld.

In its opinion, the Nevada Supreme Court backed the district court, and clarified the standards for challenging an arbitration award. The opinion notes that the Court has recognized both statutory and common law grounds for reviewing an arbitration decision. Since no statutory grounds were implicated as a basis for the appeal, the Court focused on the common law grounds.

The opinion notes that the Court has recognized two common-law grounds for reviewing a private arbitration award: "(1) the award is arbitrary, capricious, or unsupported by the arbitration agreement; or (2) the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the law."

The 3-0 opinion by Justice James W. Hardesty states that in order for a court to review an award on the first ground, the reviewing court “may only concern itself with arbitrator's findings and whether they are supported by substantial evidence of whether the subject matter of the arbitration is within the arbitration agreement.”

Under the second ground, the opinion states, “the reviewing court may only concern itself with whether the arbitrator knew of the law and, if so, consciously disregarded it, not whether the private arbitrator's interpretation of the law was correct.”

The court found that implicit in the dismissed teacher’s argument is “the contention that the assistance provided to Stuart after her first and second admonitions cannot be used to support the District's decision to not reemploy Stuart. . . .” Thus, the court interpreted the claim as asserting “that the arbitrator's award was arbitrary and capricious and/or the arbitrator manifestly disregarded the provisions of NRS 391.313.”

Applying the first ground of the common law standard, the Court held that the arbitrator's decision was not arbitrary or capricious because the arbitrator's finding that “the District's decision not to renew Stuart's employment contract was proper because Stuart was not able to administer the tests in accordance with the [district’s] protocols and procedures” was supported by substantial evidence in the record.

Addressing the second common law ground for review, the opinion states that Stuart and the association argued that the arbitrator's interpretation of the Nevada statute constituted a manifest disregard of the law. "But," the court opinion states, "we must not concern ourselves with the correctness of the arbitrator's interpretation of the statute."

In addition, the court notes that the arbitrator appreciated the statute’s significance since the arbitration award discussed the third admonition with respect to the relevant provisions of NRS 391.313, and that the arbitrator found Stuart was afforded reasonable time to improve her performance.

Consequently, the court concluded that the arbitrator's findings were not arbitrary or capricious, and that the arbitrator had not manifestly disregarded the statute.

–Brandon Bledsoe, CPR Intern