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Federal judge tosses arbitration ruling, says company doesn’t have to re-hire convict

By: David Donovan//April 10, 2015

Federal judge tosses arbitration ruling, says company doesn’t have to re-hire convict

By: David Donovan//April 10, 2015

It’s fleetingly rare to see a federal judge overturn an arbitration award, much less see one do so with the enthusiasm displayed by U.S. District Court Judge Bruce Howe Hendricks in a decision last month. Hendricks pointedly overturned an award that would have forced a local cable company to re-hire a worker who was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he was accused of exposing himself to a young girl while in a customer’s home.arbitration

In June 2011, Jason Cambest, a sales and service technician for Frontier Communications of the Carolinas, performed a service call at a residence in Myrtle Beach. Two weeks later, Frontier received a warrant for the technician who serviced the home, alleging that he had exposed his genitalia and fondled himself in front of an 8-year-old girl. Cambest, who was charged with solicitation of a minor, contended that his genitalia became exposed while he was either adjusting himself or his belt, and he had not said anything to the girl.

Cambest eventually pleaded guilty to the contributing to delinquency charge. He entered an Alford plea, meaning that he accepted punishment without admitting guilt, and all sexual aspects of the charge were removed. Cambest’s only punishment was a $200 fine and his record was expunged of all charges. After the guilty plea, Frontier resumed its internal investigation, after which it decided to terminate Cambest’s employment.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1431, filed a grievance over Cambest’s firing. Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, the parties chose Hoyt Wheeler, an arbitrator in West Columbia, to resolve the dispute. Wheeler found that Cambest’s discharge violated the CBA, and ordered Frontier to reinstate Cambest and award him back pay. Frontier refused to comply with the award and filed a complaint in federal court seeking to vacate the award.

Hendricks noted that South Carolina courts are usually disinclined to upset arbitration awards and courts must uphold and enforce them except in the most unusual of circumstances. She nevertheless “readily” granted Frontier’s motion, finding that the decision denied Frontier’s ability to prioritize the interest of children and families and violated the state’s public policy that its criminal adjudications be given proper legal effect.

“It is a seemingly unacceptable result, and indicative in some sense of the fault in our system, the energy applied by these litigants, and now the Court in necessary review, to decide what should be the most obvious result – that the plaintiff has every legal, business, moral, and public policy interest that it err on the side of this individual never representing it, unsupervised, in South Carolina homes again,” Hendricks wrote. “This is not a great legal controversy.”

During the arbitration hearing, the union emphasized that the solicitor prosecuting the case admitted that the case had been “aggressively overcharged” and also described the alleged conduct as “ambiguous as to both what occurred and what was [Cambest’s] intent.” Wheeler cited the solicitor’s explanations to support his ruling that Cambest’s guilty plea was insufficient to justify the company’s decision to fire him.

However, in her decision, Hendricks noted that an Alford plea has all of the same practical effects as a standard guilty plea and held that Cambest could not re-argue the truth of the accusations in a later proceeding. She chastised Wheeler for incorrectly finding that Cambest has pleaded no contest to his charges, and accused Wheeler of effectively re-litigating the criminal case.

“The Arbitrator’s decision offends the State’s public policy that its adjudications of guilt be recognized and not reassessed,” Hendricks wrote. “But, that is what the Arbitrator effectively, did; he deemed Cambest functionally innocent where the State deemed him not. Maybe worse yet, he ordered that the plaintiff treat him thusly.”

Throughout the opinion, Hendricks’ tone chiefly suggests indignation at having to invest time and energy on the case in the first place.

“The Court would like its own brevity to make the strongest statement about the quality of this case … as is true in a 100 percent of the cases before the Court, clever lawyering has made sophisticated that which the law should be able to treat plainly,” Hendricks wrote.

Carol Ervin of Young Clement Rivers in Charleston served as local counsel for the cable company. Peter Wilborn of Derfner Altman and Wilborn in Charleston served as local counsel for the union. Neither Ervin nor Wilborn were available to speak about the case in time for this story. Efforts to contact Wheeler were unsuccessful.

The 12-page decision is Frontier Communications of the Carolinas, LLC v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 1431 (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-063-15). An opinion digest is available online at

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan

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