Just Cause Termination for Poor Judgment Requires Clear Policies, Guidance

 By Kate Acheson

In Cincinnati State, 130 LA 1205 (Heekin, 2012), a Campus Police Officer was terminated for “very poor judgment” after pursuing a reckless driver on campus, while driving her own private, unmarked vehicle.  The Officer disputed the termination, claiming no just cause existed.  The arbitrator agreed and directed the Officer’s immediate reinstatement with back pay, seniority, and benefits.

A “just cause” standard, such as that included in the Officer’s employment agreement, requires the violated rules or policies upon which termination is based, are clear and comprehensible.  In terminating the Officer, the College claimed she violated Section 3001.21 of the Manual, which authorizes officers “to make code runs (lights and sirens) on/off campus when responding to an emergency call.”  This section also limits justified “vehicle pursuits” to “serious situations which occur on campus (i.e. violent felonies).” 

The College interpreted this section of the manual to mean that pursuits, which are appropriate solely in serious situations such as violent felonies, must only be conducted in an emergency vehicle.  However, upon fully considering the language of Section 3001.21, Arbitrator Heekin found the College’s vehicle pursuit policy was unacceptably vague.  The policy requires an officer to use his or her judgment to determine what constitutes a “serious situation” without clear guidance.  The Officer had no training on the subject of vehicle pursuits beyond receiving a copy of the Manual and being directed to know its contents.  Even her commanding officer testified that he did not know the vehicle pursuit policy prior to the incident at issue here.

Because the Officer was insufficiently informed regarding how to respond to the situation, it was improper to terminate her for exercising her judgment.  Arbitrator Heekin reasoned:

“While fully recognizing that sound professional judgment is critically important to a Campus Police Officer successfully carrying out his/her law enforcement duties, where in this matter the College reached a determination that the Grievant had used “very poor judgment”, it is fundamental that such judgment be informed by a clear and unambiguous employee rule or policy that is supported by sufficient training.”

Thus, because the College failed to establish that the Officer had adequate prior notice and sufficient training so as to have enabled her to make an informed professional judgment as to what was the best course of action; the Grievant was not discharged for “just cause.”