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Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association v. City of Trenton

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Twelfth District

July 29, 2013

OHIO PATROLMEN'S BENEVOLENT ASSOCIATION, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
CITY OF TRENTON, Defendant-Appellant.

APPEAL FROM BUTLER COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS Case No. 2012 CV 03 0937

Mark J. Volcheck, for plaintiff-appellee

Marc A. Fishel, Stacy V. Pollock, for defendant-appellant

OPINION

HENDRICKSON, P.J.

{¶ 1} Defendant-appellant, the city of Trenton, appeals a decision of the Butler County Common Pleas Court overturning an arbitrator's award and entering an alternative award in favor of plaintiff-appellee, the Ohio Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (the "Association").[1]

{¶ 2} In July 2011, Sergeant Michael Matala was terminated from his employment with the Trenton Police Department (the "Police Department") stemming from six alleged violations of the Police Department's Code of Conduct. The events leading to Matala's termination began on May 16, 2010, when Matala issued a traffic citation to Melissa Green for running a red light.[2] Matala later learned that the traffic citation had been "voided" by Lieutenant Michael Gillen. Matala sent an email to Gillen complaining about Gillen's actions using, according to the arbitrator, a "clearly sarcastic" tone. Matala further complained about the incident to Police Chief Timothy Traud.

{¶ 3} Matala and Traud then met with the Trenton safety director and City Manager John Jones. Jones stated that he believed this situation was an internal matter and that Traud should schedule a meeting between Jones, Traud, Gillen, and Matala so that the situation could be resolved. According to Jones and Traud, Matala was instructed to take no further action until that meeting took place.

{¶ 4} Nevertheless, Matala went to the home of Melissa Green to reissue the traffic citation and, at this time, spoke with Green's husband, Matthew Green. Matala informed Matthew Green that Gillen's conduct in voiding the ticket was unlawful and that Gillen may face criminal charges. Matala then reissued the citation to Melissa Green, noting in his supplemental report, "Lieutenant Gillen improperly voided the traffic citation to show Melissa's husband 'a little love' due to the fact that he's an Oxford Fireman." Ultimately, Green was convicted on the citation after a bench trial.

{¶ 5} Around this same time period, Matala began an investigation into Gillen's possession of a vehicle that had previously been located in the city's impound lot. Matala used the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway (OHLEG), a database exclusively available to law enforcement personnel and strictly restricted to legitimate law enforcement use, to investigate whether Gillen took possession of the impounded vehicle. Matala's investigation was not authorized by Traud or part of Matala's regular assignments. Matala told other police officers in the Police Department about his investigation.

{¶ 6} Based upon Gillen's conduct involving the traffic citation and the impounded vehicle, Matala met with a Butler County prosecutor. During the meeting, Matala was on duty but notified dispatch as to where he was going and remained in radio contact during the entire time. While Matala was talking to the prosecutor, only one other officer was on patrol in Trenton. However, no calls for service were made to dispatch during the time the meeting took place. It is undisputed that this meeting was generated on Matala's own volition without the permission or knowledge of Gillen or Traud.

{¶ 7} As a result of Matala's conduct, Matala was charged with seven violations of the Police Department's Code of Conduct. After a hearing before Jones, five of the seven charges were upheld. The five charges arose out of (1) Matala's conversation with Matthew Green and reissuance of the traffic citation in contravention of Jones' order; (2) the sarcastic and critical reference to Gillen in the narrative regarding the traffic citation; (3) Matala's being absent from his shift without leave to consult with the prosecutor; (4) Matala's conversation with other police officers about Gillen's ownership of the impounded vehicle; and (5) Matala's misuse of the OHLEG for nonlaw enforcement purposes. As a result of Jones's conclusions, Matala was terminated from his employment with the Police Department on July 20, 2011.

{¶ 8} Matala filed a grievance concerning his termination pursuant to a "grievance procedure" outlined in the parties' Collective Bargaining Agreement. On October 28, 2011, the parties participated in a labor arbitration hearing before an arbitrator. The arbitration hearing centered on the following issue: "Did the employer's termination of Michael Matala violate the just cause provision of the collective bargaining agreement or otherwise violate the collective bargaining agreement? If so, what shall the remedy be?"[3]

{¶ 9} In the arbitrator's December 28, 2011 "Opinion and Award, " she found that Matala's conduct of reissuing the traffic citation to Melissa Green was "insubordinate and warranted disciplinary action" and that his conversation with Matthew Green warranted "some significant disciplinary action." On the remaining charges, the arbitrator did not find Matala's conduct to warrant discipline. After further stating that Matala's conduct, as well as the conduct of Gillen and Traud, created such distrust among the three commanding officers of a small police department, the arbitrator concluded as follows:

The grievance is sustained in part and denied in part. [Matala's] discipline shall be reduced to a thirty day unpaid suspension but he shall not be reinstated to employment. [Matala] is awarded back pay from August 20, 2011 to the date of this Award together with benefits and any out of pocket loss as a result of the termination of benefits from the date of his termination to the date of this Award. The termination shall be removed from [Matala's] ...

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