CHICAGO – A federal appeals panel in Chicago has said a federal judge in central Illinois was wrong to rule against an Ameren employee who the company says was fired for violating a workplace violence policy, after he allegedly made threats and kept a concealed firearm in his vehicle while at work.
In October, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals said an arbitrator hearing the grievance complaint brought by Brian Knox did not err when he said Knox's employer, electrical utility company Ameren Illinois, could not enforce its policy, because Illinois state law allowed the man to carry a concealed weapon.
The decision was authored by Seventh Circuit Judge Michael S. Kanne, with judges Diane Sykes and Amy J. St. Eve concurring.
"Because we believe that the text of the (collective bargaining agreement) permitted the arbitrator to look into external law in interpreting the agreement, we reverse the judgment of the district court and uphold the arbitrator's award," Kanne wrote.
The case landed in the federal courts in 2017, after the arbitrator ruled in favor Knox in his grievance dispute with Ameren.
According to court documents, Knox was fired for allegedly making threats and carrying a concealed weapon on him or in his personal vehicle, which was parked in the company parking lot.
Knox had worked for Ameren since 1998, becoming a crew leader in 2015 at the company's Galesburg facility, according to the facts spelled out in the Seventh Circuit's decision.
On June 3, 2016, Knox had a series of heated arguments with his supervisor over the scheduling of work.
“Other employees later indicated to (the supervisor) that Knox owned several firearms and was known to carry concealed weapons on a regular basis,” the opinion stated. “On June 6, representatives of the company confronted Knox in the presence of a union representative and a deputy sheriff.”
According to the opinion, Knox consented to search both himself and his vehicle for weapons, at which point a firearm was found in Knox’s truck. Knox was then terminated on June 27, prompting his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 51, to file a grievance on his behalf, with the matter ultimately coming under binding arbitration.
The arbitrator determined that Knox had technically violated the policy, but the employer could not enforce the rule because Illinois statute allowed Knox to carry a concealed weapon, the appellate judges said.
According to the Appeals Court, the arbitrator disagreed with the company’s allegations that Knox’s remarks to his supervisor "rose to the level of threats or intimidation." The arbitrator also said Knox violated the policy by storing a firearm in his personal vehicle, but the policy was unenforceable because Knox had a valid license to carry the weapon under the Illinois Concealed Carry Act.
The arbitrator ordered Knox's reinstatement.
However, the company took the matter to federal court for review, and U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough vacated the arbitrator's award "on the ground that the arbitrator improperly applied external law to contradict the terms of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement),” the opinion stated.
"Language contained in the preamble of the collective bargaining agreement suspends any part of the CBA that either the company or union believes to conflict with state law," the appellate judges wrote. "While we would have preferred that the arbitrator cite to that language before applying the Concealed Carry Act to reinstate Knox, the extraordinary deferential standard of review compels us to uphold the award."
Ameren is represented in the action by attorney Robert S. Seigel, of Jackson Lewis, of Clayton, Mo.
IBEW Local 51 is represented by attorney Patrick K. Shinners, of the firm of Schuchat, Cook & Werner, of St. Louis.