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Federal 4th Circuit: Let arbitrators arbitrate

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If a recent decision is any indication, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers North Carolina employers, is willing to let arbitrators do their jobs.

Recent case: Gregory Parsons and David Boothe are two former coal miners who tried to collect retirement health benefits that Power Mountain Coal Company allegedly owed them.

Power Mountain had signed a collective-bargaining agreement in which coal operators like it agreed to be responsible for retiree health benefits if they were a miner’s last employer. But Power Mountain said it wasn’t Parsons and Boothe’s last employer.

The men argued that it must have been, because they had received a settlement payment from their union when Power Mountain allegedly breached the collective-bargaining agreement. But Power Mountain said that had nothing to do with health benefits.

It was a confusing situation. Parsons and Boothe had been the most senior members of their local; a separate collective-bargaining agreement said senior miners like them would be rehired if openings arose. But when Power Mountain hired nonunion miners instead, the union challenged the decision, and eventually the company paid the union a lump sum representing the hours that would have been available to senior union members. The union decided that Parsons and Boothe would have worked those hours and paid them out of the settlement.

That’s when they applied for health benefits, claiming that because of the settlement, Power Mountain was in effect their last employer.

An arbitrator agreed with the miners and Power Mountain appealed. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals let the arbitration decision stand, concluding that it did not want to second-guess the judgment of arbitrators interpreting a complicated collective-bargaining scheme based on interwoven agreements. (Parsons, et al., v. Power Mountain Coal Company, No. 09-1822, 4th Cir., 2010)

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