The Supreme Court of Texas has upheld an arbitrator’s award in a dispute between a Texas county and its deputy constables. In Jefferson County, Texas v. Jefferson County Constables Assoc., No. 16-0498 (Tex., April 13, 2018), the Jefferson County Constables Association entered into a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with Jefferson County, Texas on behalf of its members. Although the CBA provided the County with the right to institute layoffs or abolish positions, it also required Jefferson County to do so based entirely on seniority. In addition, the terms of the CBA provided that final resolution of any disputes related to the agreement be determined through binding arbitration.
After the CBA was signed, Jefferson County eliminated eight deputy constable positions. In response, the Constables Association claimed the County violated the CBA by abolishing positions without regard to seniority. The dispute was ultimately submitted to arbitration where an arbitrator determined the County “violated the CBA by laying off or failing to budget for specific deputy constables without regard to seniority.” In addition, the arbitrator ordered the parties to negotiate the terminated deputy constables’ reinstatement and back pay based on seniority.
Next, the County filed a successful motion to vacate the arbitration award in district court. On appeal, Jefferson County argued for the first time the CBA was not valid because deputy constables are not police officers under Texas Local Government Code Chapter 174. In addition, the County claimed the Constables Association lacked standing under the Code. The Court of Appeals was unpersuaded and reversed the lower court’s order vacating the arbitration award. Jefferson County then filed a petition for review with the Supreme Court of Texas.
In its opinion, the Texas high court first addressed whether it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review the parties’ dispute. According to the court:
By contrast, this case does not stem from an alleged violation of the Collective Bargaining Act. The County and the Constables Association have already engaged in the collective bargaining process, reached an agreement, and participated in arbitration proceedings regarding a dispute over whether the County violated that agreement. Thus, the Association is seeking to enforce a contract, not the Act. In turn, although the CBA’s validity may hinge on the Act’s applicability, the Association’s standing does not.
Accordingly, the CBA’s validity does not affect the courts’ subject-matter jurisdiction over this dispute, and the County therefore risked waiving illegality as a defense by failing to raise it as a basis to vacate the arbitration award in either the trial court or its principal briefing in the court of appeals. However, we note that both parties have fully briefed and argued the merits of the issue here. Further, the Constables Association does not ask us to resolve the question on waiver grounds and concedes that its general collective bargaining rights depend on the deputy constables’ status as police officers under the Act. For these reasons, and because the issue is of continuing importance to our jurisprudence, we will address it.
The Texas Supreme Court then ruled the deputy constables are in fact police officers under the Code. The court stated:
Whether the deputy constables are police officers entitled to collectively bargain under the Act is a matter of statutory interpretation. In construing the Act, as with any statute, our primary objective is to give effect to the Legislature’s intent. Molinet v. Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex. 2011). We begin with the “ordinary meaning of the statutory text.” In re Ford Motor Co., 442 S.W.3d 265, 271 (Tex. 2014). “We analyze statutory language in context, considering the specific section at issue as well as the statute as a whole.” CHCA Woman’s Hosp. v. Lidji, 403 S.W.3d 228, 231–32 (Tex. 2013). The Legislature has further instructed that the Act “shall be liberally construed.” TEX. LOC. GOV’T CODE § 174.004. Applying these principles, we hold that deputy constables are police officers under the Act.
Finally, the Supreme Court of Texas held the arbitrator did not exceed his authority when he issued an award against Jefferson County. The court said:
The County argues that the county commissioners court “eliminated” the deputy positions (along with their respective salaries) as part of its delegated legislative duty to create the county budget, and that the arbitrator effectively usurped that duty by ordering the deputies “reinstated” to a position that no longer exists. The County distinguishes between layoffs, which are governed by seniority under the CBA, and “the abolishing of positions,” which the County has unfettered authority to do. The Constables Association responds that the County’s mere disagreement with the arbitrator’s interpretation of the CBA—an issue that was properly submitted to the arbitrator— does not provide grounds to vacate the award.
We agree with the Association. The arbitrator did not quibble with the County’s right to abolish as many deputy positions as it deemed necessary or prudent, nor did he order the County to create or fund positions that no longer existed. He merely determined that, upon eliminating funding for eight deputy-constable positions, the County was required under the CBA to consider the deputies’ countywide seniority in determining which eight deputies were to be terminated. The arbitrator concluded that the County’s failure to do so violated the CBA, and he ordered the County to rectify that violation by reinstating the deputies pursuant to their seniority. The arbitrator’s analysis of the interplay between the CBA’s provisions regarding layoffs and abolishing positions may or may not be correct, but it is precisely within the scope of his contractual authority to resolve “[a]ll disputes concerning the proper interpretation and application of” the CBA. See City of Pasadena v. Smith, 292 S.W.3d 14, 20 (Tex. 2009) (“An arbitrator derives his power from the parties’ agreement to submit to arbitration . . . .”).
Common-law grounds for vacating an arbitration award are exceedingly narrow and do not include an arbitrator’s mere error in applying the law. See CVN Grp., 95 S.W.3d at 238; see also id. at 239 (holding that “an arbitrator’s mere disagreement with a judge does not violate public policy”); City of Pasadena, 292 S.W.3d at 20 (noting that “judicial review of an arbitration award is usually very narrow”). Even assuming the arbitrator erroneously interpreted the CBA, an issue we need not reach, such error does not justify the trial court’s judgment vacating the award.
Because the CBA was valid and enforceable, the deputy commissioners were considered police officers under Texas law, and the arbitrator did not exceed his authority when he issued an award against Jefferson County, the Supreme Court of Texas affirmed the appellate court’s decision upholding the arbitrator’s award.