City of Duluth fights decision to reinstate police officer
DULUTH — The city is asking a judge to vacate an arbitrator's decision to reinstate a police officer to his position after he was fired for dragging a handcuffed man through a hallway and ramming his head into a steel door.
Officer Adam Huot, a nine-year veteran with a history of excessive-force complaints, was terminated by the Duluth Police Department in wake of the May 2017 incident in which he was captured on video pulling an intoxicated man approximately 100 feet through the downtown skywalk system.
The Duluth Police Union later filed a grievance, acknowledging that Huot's actions "were inappropriate and reflected poorly on all police officers," but contending that the incident did not warrant termination.
Arbitrator Mario Bognanno agreed in June, giving Huot his job back, without the benefit of back pay for the year he was on unpaid leave. While calling the officer's actions "unreasonable" and noting his history of disciplinary action, the arbitrator said the department failed to show "just cause" for termination.
The issue came before Judge Eric Hylden on Monday, Sept. 1, with Police Chief Mike Tusken and several union officials in attendance at the St. Louis County Courthouse.
Susan Hansen, a Twin Cities attorney retained by the city, told the judge that Huot has "demonstrated a proclivity" to violate the social contract between police and the community and "undermined the mission of the DPD and his performance as a police officer for the DPD."
"Returning Adam Huot to his position violates the public's trust and subjects them to unreasonable use of force, unreported police misconduct and abuse of authority by those sworn to protect and serve them," Hansen argued.
The city is asking the court to take the rare step of overturning a binding arbitration decision. State law requires collective bargaining agreements between public employers and unions to contain a provision for disciplinary disputes to be resolved through binding arbitration — as was the case in Huot's grievance.
James Michels, a Minneapolis attorney representing the union, told Hylden that should have settled the case once and for all. He called his opposing counsel's argument "impassioned but totally wrong."
"This matter is now before the court simply because the city seeks to repudiate an arbitration decision it does not like," Michels wrote in a memorandum ahead of Monday's hearing.
According to arbitration and court documents, Huot was the subject of 12 complaints during his tenure, six of which were substantiated. Tusken testified that no other officer in his 155-member department necessitated as much oversight, coaching, training and discipline as Huot.
Huot in 2014 received a one-day suspension after repeatedly punching a man who had escaped from a mental health unit. Among other incidents, he was also disciplined for a "confrontational" response to a call involving four of five youths, in which he ended up wrestling one boy to the ground.
In the May 2017 skywalk incident, Huot was one of three officers called to remove two men from the building. Body camera footage shows one man, 30-year-old Brandon Houle, dropping to the ground and telling officers, "I ain't gonna make it easy for you guys."
Within seconds, without consulting his fellow officers, Huot is seen grabbing Houle by the chain on his handcuffs and forcibly dragging him down the hallway. Houle's head narrowly misses one post before striking the door with a loud thud. Houle, who is Native American and was homeless at the time, suffered a bump on the head but was not otherwise injured.
The video does not show Huot checking on Houle or inquiring about his condition. He also did not report the use-of-force incident to his supervisors. His fellow officers, who said they were left "shocked" by Huot's actions, did so later in the same shift.
In appealing Bognanno's decision, the city is relying on a "public policy exception" established by Minnesota courts. A court may set aside an award "only if the labor agreement contains terms which violate public policy, or the arbitration award creates an explicit conflict with other laws and legal precedents."
Hansen contended the city has met that burden. Noting that Bognanno even expressed concern in his decision about Huot's inability to control his "penchant for misusing vocal and physical force," she said the officer would pose a risk to the public if placed back on the streets.
"Here, there is an indisputable public policy against police officers using excessive force and in favor of transparency and property reporting by police officers," Hansen wrote. "The city of Duluth has an affirmative duty to implement and enforce these public policies."
But Michels said concerns about Huot's future actions as an officer are purely speculative and noted that the arbitrator felt that he was entitled to another opportunity. Further, Michels said a ruling vacating the decision would have a "chilling effect" on public sector laws by circumventing the established collective bargaining process.
"It would create carte blanche for employers to impose discipline against police officers without concern as to an arbitrator's interpretation of 'just cause' since it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which an employer could not subsequently claim to a reviewing court that the employee's conduct calls into question his or her ability to 'self-regulate,' " Michels wrote.
A case with similar legal questions is set to go before the Minnesota Supreme Court next week. The Minnesota Court of Appeals in April sided with the city of Richfield in its decision to fire an officer who was caught on video striking a Somali teenager over the head. The appeals court said a district judge erred in failing to vacate an arbitrator's decision ordering the city to rehire the officer.
Hylden took Huot's case under advisement on Monday, saying he did not plan to wait for the Supreme Court's decision in the Richfield case. The judge, however, acknowledged that any new precedent established by the high court in the coming months could create renewed issues in Huot's case.