Federal court orders reinstatement of fired Capitol Police officer

A federal court has ordered the Capitol Police to comply with an arbitration decision to reinstate an officer terminated for misconduct. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A federal court has ordered the Capitol Police to comply with an arbitration decision to reinstate an officer terminated for misconduct. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 25, 2019 at 5:10pm

A federal court has ordered the Capitol Police to comply with an arbitration decision to reinstate an officer fired for misconduct, supporting an earlier ruling made by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit issued a judgement Friday in a case that’s been underway for more than five years. The officer in question, Private First Class Andrew Ricken, was fired in June 2013. The court rejected a petition from Capitol Police to review a decision by the OCWR (previously the Office of Compliance) that upheld an arbitration decision that would allow him to return to work.

“We hold that the Police’s petition for review lacks merit, and must be denied,” says the decision.

Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Gus Papathanasiou said the union was “elated” to hear the decision, but the fight might not be over. He said he assumes that the Capitol Police will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. “The Department is reviewing the decision and its options,” said USCP spokesperson Eva Malecki.

After socializing with two female Catholic University students on the campus, Ricken drove away from two marked CU police cars with emergency lights activated. They pursued him after a student reported seeing an armed man on campus. Ricken sped away from the campus police and eventually crashed his car into a gate at a DPW waste facility, according to documents from the OCWR.  Meanwhile, a campus-wide lockdown was initiated and students sheltered in place.

The incident was investigated by the USCP Office of Professional Responsibility, which found multiple violations and recommended that Ricken be fired. A USCP Disciplinary Review Board found Ricken guilty of the charge of “conduct unbecoming” and also recommended discharge. The USCP Chief asked for approval to terminate the officer and he was fired.

Ricken invoked his right to arbitrate whether his termination was “proper” under the collective bargaining agreement between the department and the Capitol Police Labor Committee, the officers union.

Arbitration is the final step in a lengthy process for settling grievances, including when officers assert they have been wrongfully terminated.

In May 2014, the arbitrator held that for the misconduct, termination was too harsh and that a 30-day suspension was the proper punishment. The arbitrator directed the department to reinstate the officer and award Ricken back pay and benefits.

The department fought the arbitration award and filed exceptions in Dec. 2014 with the Office of Compliance. A few months later, in Feb. 2015, the arbitrator gave the Capitol Police a 30-day deadline for compliance. But the department responded by telling the union that it would not comply with the arbitration.

The conflict led the union to file charges of unfair labor practice with the OOC. In Sept. 2017, the OOC board ordered Capitol Police to “cease and desist from failing to fully implement the arbitrator’s May 13, 2014, award,” and upheld the arbiter’s more recent decision to reinstate Rickens.

In addition to rejecting the Capitol Police department’s petition for review of the decision, the court also granted the Office of Compliance application for enforcement of the decision.

“It’s appalling that rather than follow the parties Collective Bargaining Agreement and abide by the Arbitrator’s decision to reinstate this officer, the Department threw a legal tantrum when it didn’t get its way,” said Papathanasiou.

The court decided a related case in November 2018, which granted a petition to make the department and the union negotiate a new contract, while dismissing the Capitol Police’s appeal over whether the union could challenge employees’ terminations through arbitration.

At an oversight hearing in 2018, Papathanasiou told lawmakers that key issues of disagreement between the department and the union include “ignoring legally binding arbitration rulings” and “ignoring decisions by the Office of Compliance.”

Capitol Police wanted to change the grievance process, to remove the final step of arbitration from termination cases. The union wanted to keep termination of officers open to arbitration. Negotiations between the two parties came to a halt when the Capitol Police contended that the union’s proposals were nonnegotiable and refused to continue, according to court documents.

The appellate court’s earlier actions were focused on a broad ability of officers to engage in arbitration when challenging a termination, and Ricken’s case was moving through the court while that was decided.

A similar case is still awaiting a court decision. Christopher Donaldson was terminated by Capitol Police in 2015 and challenged his dismissal. After going through the grievance process and arbitration, the arbitrator decided that Donaldson should be reinstated, but subject to a 30-day suspension and a two-year “Last Chance Agreement.” He was also awarded back pay. The department challenged the arbitrator’s award, and the case is awaiting a court decision.

“I’m hoping that we get the same decision because they were very similar cases in terms of arbitration,” said Papathanasiou after the Rickens decision came down.

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