Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Clarifies Standard of Review by Courts Hearing Arbitration Appeals

Ohio law permits limited legal challenges to arbitration awards, and the Ohio Supreme Court today clarified the proper review of those disputes when they reach an appeals court.

The Supreme Court resolved the question in an appeal by the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities of an Eleventh District Court of Appeals decision. The board had successfully challenged an arbitrator’s ruling against it in common pleas court only to have the Eleventh District reverse the lower court and uphold the arbitrator’s decision.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that when an appeals court reviews the decision of a common pleas court’s confirmation, modification, vacation, or correction of an arbitrator’s decision, the appellate court conducts an independent review of the legal claims made on appeal. Writing for the Court, Justice Terrence O’Donnell stated the appeals courts should accept the findings of fact made by a trial court that are not “clearly erroneous,” but review legal questions de novo.

Justice O’Donnell noted that of Ohio’s 12 appellate court districts, nine have applied a de novo review that is less deferential to a trial court’s decision, while three apply a more deferential “abuse of discretion” review. The opinion stated this was the first time the Ohio Supreme Court addressed the disparity.

Clerk Refused Bus Duties
Patricia Byttner had previous experience as a school bus driver when she applied to be an account clerk for the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities in its transportation department. During her job interview she agreed that she would substitute as a bus driver or bus aide in emergency situations.

The account clerk job required Byttner to perform bookkeeping, secretarial and clerical duties, but nothing related to serving on the buses. In August 2012, Byttner’s supervisor directed her to fill in as a bus aide, but Byttner refused citing pending knee surgery and her inability to position herself to secure wheelchairs on the bus.

About two months later, the board unilaterally amended her job description and required her to serve as a vehicle operator or attendant when needed. The Portage County Educators’ Association for Developmental Disabilities, the union representing Byttner, filed a grievance against the board, charging that the board misinterpreted the collective bargaining agreement when it selectively changed Byttner’s job description. The union noted that the new duty was not included in any other clerical position of a board employee. The matter went to binding arbitration.

Arbitrator Sides with Union
An arbitrator found the board violated the collective bargaining agreement and directed the board to remove the new duty from the job description. The arbitrator also ruled Byttner could not arbitrarily renege on her commitment to serve on a bus when needed. However, he found the board was obligated to evaluate Byttner’s ability to serve if she documented that she was medically unable.

The board asked the Portage County Common Pleas Court to vacate the arbitration award. The trial court agreed. Citing R.C. 2711.10(D), it determined the arbitrator departed “from the essence of the collective bargaining agreement and exceeded his powers and authority.” The union appealed to the Eleventh District.

The Eleventh District reversed the trial court and reinstated the arbitrator’s decision. The appellate court stated it conducted a de novo review of the trial court’s limited grounds contained in R.C. 2711.10 to vacate an arbitrator’s award. It found the trial improperly ruled that the arbitrator exceeded his authority. The Eleventh District then certified that its decision conflicted with other appeals courts that do not conduct an independent legal review of the arbitrator’s work, but rather determine if the trial court abused its discretion when changing the arbitrator’s decision.

Courts Have Limited Power to Change Arbitration Decisions
The opinion noted that both parties argued Ohio public policy favors arbitration over litigation. R.C.  2711.10 authorizes a common pleas court to alter an arbitration award if there was fraud, corruption, or undue means used to win a decision; if there was evidence of impartiality by the arbitrator; or if there was misconduct by the arbitrator that hampered a party’s case. R.C. 2711.10(D) allows the award to be altered if: “The arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter was not made.”

The Supreme Court has determined R.C. 2711.10 is equivalent to a provision of the Federal Arbitration Act, and stated it has often used the federal law to aid it in applying the Ohio state law. The opinion noted that not only have several federal courts ruled that appeals courts should conduct de novo reviews, but also found that opinion is shared by other state supreme courts that have considered the issue, including California and South Dakota.

By adopting the position of other courts, the Ohio Supreme Court found the Eleventh District acted appropriately.

“In this case the court of appeals properly reviewed the trial court’s judgment, and therefore we affirm its decision,” the Court concluded.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine joined the opinion. Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Lisa L. Sadler, sitting for former Justice William M. O’Neill, also joined the opinion.

2017-0696. Portage Cty. Bd. of Dev. Disabilities v. Portage Cty. Educators’ Assn. for Dev. Disabilities, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-1590.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.