Mountlake Terrace Officer’s Termination Overturned: Arbitrator Awards Reinstatement and Back Pay

By Cynthia McNabb

On January 6, 2013, Officer Tam Guthrie of the Mountlake Terrace Police Department was ordered reinstated to his position as an Officer for the City of Mountlake Terrace.  Arbitrator Mark Brennan also awarded that the City of Mountlake Terrace pay full back pay and benefits to Tam Guthrie from the date of termination based on his findings that the City of Mountlake Terrace did not have just cause to terminate the longtime employee.

This case arises from the January 11, 2012, termination of Officer Guthrie of the Mountlake Terrace Police Department.  Officer Guthrie had served over twenty years as an Officer in the Mountlake Terrace Police Department.  After years of acceptable performance, Officer Guthrie became a target of discipline when Chief Greg Wilson became the Chief of Police of Mountlake Terrace.  Along with opening internal investigations on a series of minor issues (easily handled through a coach and counsel), in September 2011, Chief Wilson initiated an investigation into Officer Guthrie’s handling of domestic violence reports along with an investigation into Officer Guthrie’s handling of follow-ups.  After the initial investigation failed to reveal serious misconduct, Chief Wilson ordered the investigation re-opened in an effort to find enough evidence to terminate Officer Guthrie.  After pursuing the investigation until multiple counts could be alleged, Office Guthrie was terminated by Chief Wilson, despite compelling evidence that the City had contributed to Officer Guthrie’s alleged misconduct in not properly training and supervising him.  Further, prior to termination the City refused to credit legitimate explanations provided by Tam Guthrie in response to the allegations contained in the investigation that would have mitigated the imposition of termination. 

A hearing was held at the end of October 2012, wherein the Chief of Police, along with Commanders Duncan and McCaul, testified.  The Guild, represented by Cline & Associates attorney Cynthia McNabb, brought forth fellow officers, a member of the public who had numerous domestic violence interactions with Officer Guthrie, and Officer Guthrie as witnesses. 

In reviewing the facts and arguments of the termination under a just cause analysis standard, Arbitrator Mark Brennan noted that:

[B]efore discharge may be imposed based upon job performance issues an employee must be (1) warned that if he does not improve in his performance he will be subject to discipline, (2) provided assistance or additional training to improve his performance and (3) given an adequate opportunity to show improvement. Only thereafter will termination be appropriate if the deficiency remains, and a penalty of termination is appropriate given the employee’s total work record. 

In determining that the City of Mountlake Terrace did not have just cause to terminate Tam Guthrie, the Arbitrator stated that “an employee with performance issues is entitled under just cause principles to receive positive assistance to improve before discharge.  It need not be in the form of a PIP, but it has to be something beyond what every other officer receives.”

Of relevance, as the Guild pointed out in testimony and in its brief, Chief Wilson admitted that the City had given remedial training to other employees with performance issues, namely sending officers with firearms or tactical deficiencies to additional training.  Inapposite, no such training was provided to Officer Guthrie when problems were found with his performance.  The Arbitrator further noted that an Officer’s length of service, does not excuse an employer from neglecting a long term employee who demonstrates a need for assistance or additional training. 

Of particular importance in the case, was that the “work plan” developed by the City and the Chief of Police to correct Officer’s Guthrie’s perceived deficiencies, essentially involved his supervisors reviewing all of his reports and offering feedback when a report needed follow-up or additional work.  Officer Guthrie understood that if a report was deficient, he would be notified.  However, as the Arbitrator found:

Not even this minimal positive assistance was provided by the Employer, however.  Instead, Officer Guthrie’s immediate supervisors continued to approve Officer Guthrie’s reports, although it was their duty and obligation to insure they were complete and thorough and demonstrated the proper handling of the cases.  In fact, in four of the six domestic violence cases relied upon by the Employer as a basis for Officer Guthrie’s discharge, his supervisors approved the reports as complete when he initially turned them in.

In short, the Employer did not provide Officer Guthrie with any reasonable assistance to improve his performance on domestic violence or other case handling matters after its June 11, 2010 notice . . . Because Officer Guthrie was not provided any positive assistance, it follows that the Employer did not give him a reasonable opportunity to improve.

This decision is a victory for Tam Guthrie along with the Officers of Mountlake Terrace and continues the deluge of bad news for the City management of Mountlake Terrace. Simply put, summarily terminating an officer who has positive performance appraisals and well-documented areas of strength without providing the officer a legitimate opportunity to improve performance deficiencies, with assistance from supervisors and management, is not supportable.  While the cost of arbitration can appear prohibitive, cases like Tam’s illustrate the importance of holding management accountable for their actions and challenging discipline under just cause standards.