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David Achtenberg

Professor & Law Foundation Scholar

UMKC School of Law

Kansas City, MO 64110-2499

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AchtenbergD@umkc.edu

 
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McDonald v. City of West Branch

466 U.S. 284 (1984)*
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McDonald's Legal Significance

McDonald's Background Story

McDonald v. City of West Branch held that decisions by an arbitrator, unlike decisions by a state court, should not be given preclusive effect in subsequent 1983 cases.   However, as discussed below, that holding has been drastically undermined by more recent decisions. 

McDonald completed a trilogy of cases that held that a collective bargaining agreement could not eliminate an individual employee's right to go to federal court to assert federal statutory rights.  Before McDonald, the Court had held that arbitration awards would not have preclusive effect in subsequent Title VII actions or in subsequent FLSA minimum wage suits.  See  Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co.,1 and Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc.,2

This trilogy was generally understood to hold that arbitration awards should be given neither collateral estoppel nor res judicata effect.  (For a brief explanation of collateral estoppel and res judicata, click here.)  The trilogy decisions stressed various arguments against preclusion: that arbitrators' authority is limited to the contract and they may lack expertise on statutory issues, that arbitration may provide fewer procedural protections for the plaintiff, and that the unionwhich controls collectively bargained arbitrationsmay have interests that conflict with the interests of the plaintiff.

However, the Alexander-Barrentine-McDonald trilogy has now been seriously undermined (if not effectively overruled) by a series of cases beginning with Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp.,3  and culminating in 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett.4  The Pyett Court reinterpreted the three cases narrowly to hold that the particular federal court statutory suits could proceed only  because the language of the arbitration clauses did not specifically authorize resolution of statutory claims.  As a result, it now appears that, if a collectively bargained arbitration clause is sufficiently specific, it can require that employees pursue their 1983 cases before an arbitrator rather than in federal court.   The Court explicitly suggested that Alexander (and by implication the rest of the trilogy) might be overruled.

As a result, McDonald now stands at most for two more limited principles:  First, a prior arbitration award will not be given res judicata effect (i.e., will not entirely bar a subsequent federal court suit) unless the arbitration agreement explicitly requires that statutory claims (such as ones under 1983) be resolved through arbitration.  Second, if the federal suit is not entirely barred, a prior arbitration award will not be given collateral estoppel effect,  i.e., its factual findings may be considered, but will not be binding, in a subsequent 1983 suit in federal court.   

In the 1970's, West Branch, Michigan was a small community of fewer than 2,000 people with a police force of three officers.  On November 25, 1976, West Branch Police Chief Paul Longstreet fired ten-year veteran officer Gary McDonald (pictured at right).   As discussed below, the reasons for the firing were hotly contested in two separate proceedings with two utterly inconsistent results: An arbitrator found that McDonald was fired because he had engaged in sexual misconduct.  A federal jury found that McDonald had been fired because of First Amendment activity including complaining that Chief Longstreet had engaged in sexual misconduct. 

Relations between the Officer McDonald and the Chief had been troubled for some time, heating up as McDonald became the spokesman for the local union.  They reaching a boiling point after McDonald and the other officers reported to various city officials that a number of women had complained that Chief Longstreet had engaged in sexual assault misconduct.  These reports led to an investigation by the Michigan State Police.  The officers complained to the City Manager that Chief Longstreet was harassing and threatening them  because of the investigation.  They also attempted to meet with the Mayor, but were instead confronted by Chief Longstreet who again threatened McDonald.  The next day, the Chief and City Manager advised the council that McDonald would be fired, and McDonald was notified of the firing the following day. 

McDonald claimed that he had been fired due to his First Amendment activities as a spokesman for the local union including his reports of alleged misconduct by the Chief and his protests of harassment for those reports.   The City and the Chief, on the other hand, claimed that McDonald had been fired for various reasons including "Conduct unbecoming an officer" which was later amended to allege that McDonald had committed a sexual assault.  Prior to the arbitration hearing, the City refused to inform McDonald date or location of the alleged assault or the name of the alleged victim.

After a one day hearing, the arbitrator (a retired state court judge) found that the assault had occurred and that it justified McDonald's firing.  He credited the testimony of the young woman and found that, during a traffic stop,  McDonald had fondled her and asked her to take off her blouse.  In doing so, the arbitrator explicitly disbelieved McDonald's denial that the incident had occurred, and upheld McDonald's discharge.

The subsequent federal trial was quite different in procedure and outcome.  The case was tried to a jury rather than to an arbitrator.  McDonald (rather than the union) was a party and selected his own lawyer.  In the arbitration, the union refused to call a crucial corroborating witness, Louis Osten; in the federal trial, Officer Osten testified that he was present with McDonald at the time of the traffic stop and that McDonald neither touched the woman nor said anything offensive to her.  The jury, after hearing six days of testimony as well as the findings of the arbitrator, found that Chief Longstreet had fired McDonald  for his union activities in violation of his First Amendment rights, implicitly rejecting the argument that he had been fired for misconduct.  However, it only awarded him $8,000.00 in damages.   

The federal case was appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed on the basis that the arbitration award barred the subsequent federal 1983 suit.  The Supreme Court reversed unanimously, reinstating the judgment in favor of McDonald. 

After being fired, Gary McDonald bought and ran Mac's Place Restaurant for nineteen years.  He died in 2014. 

Notes

1 415 U.S. 36 (1974)

2 450 U.S. 728 (1981)

3 500 U.S. 20 (1991)

4 556 U.S. 247 (2009)

*Important Disclosure and Disclaimer:
David Achtenberg, the editor of this website, represented Gary McDonald in the Supreme Court proceedings in this case.  (He did not represent Mr. McDonald in the arbitration proceedings or in the lower federal courts.)  While he has tried to be as objective as possible, this representation may color his description of the legal significance or the background history of the case. 
The statements in this website are solely those of Professor Achtenberg in his role as editor of the website.  They do not represent the views of the late Gary McDonald and are not made on Mr. McDonald's behalf.