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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Indiana Decisions - 7th Circuit posts one today

Int'l Union Eng 139 v. J.H. Findorff & Son (ED Wis.)

Before EASTERBROOK, RIPPLE, and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.
EASTERBROOK, Circuit Judge. * * * Local 139 asserted that operating engineers, rather than laborers, should do any of the demolition work that required the use of skid-steer loaders. Findorff disagreed, and the dispute proceeded to arbitration. After hearing testimony about how skid-steer loaders are used, and which workers operate them at Findorff, arbitrator Neil Gundermann ruled in Findorff’s favor. * * *

The district court vacated the award. As the judge saw matters, the arbitrator had neglected the collective bargaining agreement’s plain language. * * *

The district judge did not doubt that Arbitrator Gundermann was construing this collective bargaining agreement rather than supplying a rule that he preferred to the parties’ agreement. Instead the judge applied a “plain-meaning exception” to the normal rule that an arbitrator’s power to decide includes the power to err. Apart from what the Supreme Court has had to say about the propriety of such an exception is the fact that what may seem “plain” to a judge is not necessarily plain to persons with greater experience in the business that the agreement is designed to cover. Arbitrators, often chosen because of their expertise in the industry, may see nuances that escape generalist judges. Persons steeped in the specialized language of a trade, or the business norms against which the language was written, often eschew “plain meaning” in favor of context, while generalists use a more text-bound approach because that is easier and less error- prone for outsiders. See generally Frederick Schauer, The Practice and Problems of Plain Meaning, 45 Vand. L. Rev. 715 (1992); Schauer, Statutory Construction and the Coordinating Function of Plain Meaning, 1990 Sup. Ct. Rev. 231. * * *

Arbitrator Gundermann treated the skid-steer loader as a tool useful to many crafts rather than a job for one craft; that tracks how the parties themselves behaved. * * *

Using “plain meaning” to trump the understanding and practice of both parties to an agreement would do neither side a favor. Some practical leavening was needed; that’s why the parties gave the task to an arbitrator. * * *

The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for entry of a judgment enforcing the arbitrator’s award.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on December 30, 2004 01:20 PM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions