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A federal judge Thursday decided the fates of the 22 major league baseball umpires who lost their jobs in 1999 after they joined a mass resignation campaign that backfired when management called their bluff and began hiring replacements from the minor leagues. Reviewing an arbitrator’s decision, Judge Harvey Bartle III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found that the arbitrator was correct in ordering the reinstatement of nine umpires and in denying the reinstatement claims of 10 others. But the three remaining umpires could now win their jobs back because Bartle found that the arbitrator’s decision in their cases “was completely off base” and must be sent to a new arbitrator for reassessment. Like so many judicial opinion relating to baseball, Bartle’s 26-page opinion in The Major League Umpires Association v. The American League of Professional Baseball Clubs is loaded with puns. He opened by saying his task was to decide whether the arbitrator’s award “missed the ball” and that in the briefs before him, each side “makes a pitch that all or part of the arbitrator’s ruling should be scored as an error and set aside.” The suits stemmed from disputes between the MLUA — the former exclusive bargaining agent of major league baseball umpires — and top baseball officials during the 1999 season. At the time, the MLUA claimed that in an effort to wrest control over the umpires from the league presidents, Baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig had implemented new policies that violated the existing collective bargaining agreements between the MLUA and the American and National Leagues. On July 15, 1999, in an effort to force the leagues to negotiate with the umpires regarding the MLUA’s concern over the new policies, the MLUA orchestrated the submission of resignation letters by 57 of the 68 umpires to their respective league presidents. But the plan backfired a week later when Selig and the league presidents responded by offering umpiring positions to minor league umpires as replacements for those MLUA members who had tendered their resignations. Within one day, National League President Leonard S. Coleman had extended eight offers, and American League President Gene S. Budig had tendered nine offers, all of which were accepted. The MLUA quickly changed its game plan and many of its members rescinded their resignations. By July 26, the American League had filled its regular complement of 32 umpires through a combination of rescissions and minor league hires. Budig then sent letters to the nine remaining American League umpires accepting their resignations effective Sept. 2, 1999. By contrast, the National League was still short of its full staff of 36 umpires when the wave of resignation withdrawals came in. Coleman had hired 13 replacements when 32 umpires asked to get their jobs back, but only 19 positions were open. On July 27, Coleman wrote to 19 umpires to accept them back, but informed 13 others that he had accepted their resignations. That left 22 umpires — nine from the American League and 13 from the National League — without jobs. The MLUA responded by demanding arbitration for the 22 in August 1999, contending that management had violated their agreement. In May 2001, the arbitrator ordered the reinstatement of two American League and seven National League umpires with backpay and benefits. But he declined to do so for seven umpires in the American League and six in the National League. Both sides then returned to federal court and asked Bartle to set aside the portions of the arbitrator’s decision that they disagreed with. LIMITED REVIEW Bartle found that his power to review the arbitrator’s decision was strictly limited. “It is not the role of the district court to vacate an arbitrator’s award merely because it would have resolved the dispute differently,” Bartle wrote. “We may not set aside an arbitrator’s decision when he or she merely errs as a matter of law. We may do so only if his or her legal determination ‘evidences a manifest disregard of the law.’ “ The arbitrator held that management was entitled to hire permanent replacements due to the concerted but “unprotected” activity of the MLUA. Bartle agreed, saying the leagues “could have been stopped short without most of [their] umpires at the most crucial point of the year, at the end of the regular season and during the post-season playoffs.” Despite the MLUA’s “cry of foul,” Bartle said, the arbitrator “did not commit a manifest error of law” when he denied the grievances of the seven American League umpires because “by the time they had rescinded their resignations on July 27, the American League had already filled its staff complement of thirty-two umpires. No vacancies then existed.” Bartle found that “legal precedent exists for the proposition that a rescission of a prospective resignation is not effective if the employer has relied on the anticipated resignation and changed its position by hiring a replacement before the rescission is submitted.” As a result, Bartle said, the American League “had no obligation to rehire umpires who withdrew their resignations after it had put together a full roster.” Bartle also found the arbitrator was on firm ground when he ordered reinstatement of two American League umpires because one had never truly resigned and the other had rescinded his resignation prior to the league’s filling the vacancies. Turning to the National League umpires, Bartle found that the arbitrator correctly held that the league should have followed a plan of rehiring on the basis of merit and skill and that seven deserved reinstatement because they were found to have merit and skill. Likewise, Bartle found that the arbitrator correctly held that three others were properly rejected for their lack of merit. But Bartle found that the arbitrator erred when he held that three remaining umpires — Paul Nauert, Bruce Dreckman and Sam Holbrook — were not entitled to have their fates decided on the basis of merit because they had less than five years of service. Unlike the case of the more senior umpires, the arbitrator ruled that “the tenure of these three individuals was subject to the unfettered discretion of the League President.” Bartle disagreed, saying “the arbitrator’s conclusion, and the thought process that accompanied it, have absolutely no basis in either the agreement or the factual record.” Instead, Bartle said, the collective bargaining agreement stated that “all umpires shall be selected or retained in the discretion of the League Presidents on the basis of merit and the skill of the umpire to perform to Major League standards.” Bartle found that the language in the agreement “could not be clearer.” “Without question, all umpires meant all umpires, including those with less than five years of service. The arbitrator may not pick off these three umpires and treat them as outside the protection of the agreement,” Bartle wrote. Bartle concluded that the arbitrator “committed a manifest error of law” because his decision “did not draw its essence from the agreement.” But Bartle stopped short of ordering reinstatement for the three, saying instead that the only remedy they could win in court was a remand for further proceedings before another arbitrator. The MLUA was represented by attorneys Patrick C. Campbell of Richard G. Phillips & Associates and Clifford E. Haines of Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, both in Philadelphia; and Howard M. Pearl of Winston & Strawn in Chicago. The leagues and Selig were represented by attorneys Steven R. Wall, Michael S. Burkhardt and Megan E. Shafer of Morgan Lewis & Bockius in Philadelphia.

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