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Brainerd: Appeals court sides with firefighters union

Brainerd Fire Department’s former full-time equipment operators Mark Turner (left), Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis are seen in a 2013 photo wearing their pink T-shirts to support the fight against breast and other cancers. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Brainerd city officials committed unfair labor practices by unilaterally eliminating full-time firefighter positions in 2015, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled.

In a published opinion posted Monday, Oct. 8, the appeals court in part reversed and remanded a Crow Wing County District Court decision, which granted summary judgment in favor of the city on all four claims brought forth in a January 2016 lawsuit filed by the Firefighters Union Local 4725 and union President Mark Turner. A court grants summary judgment when it finds the facts of a case lack merit, therefore eliminating the need for a trial.

The opinion penned by Judge Roger M. Klaphake instructed the lower court to grant summary judgment in favor of the union on its claim the city violated a state labor law and address the union's request for relief. In the suit, the union requested a number of things, including job reinstatement for full-time firefighters, damages in excess of $50,000, the chance to seek punitive damages and reimbursement of attorney's fees and other costs. The appeals court did not specify which relief requests the district court must grant, instead ordering it to "fashion an appropriate remedy."

In the lawsuit, the union and Turner asserted the city violated the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act with its decision to restructure the fire department to include only paid-on-call firefighters. This decision, the union argued, effectively dissolved the union in the midst of an operating bargaining agreement, thereby interfering with the existence and administration of a union. The city and union agreed to a three-year contract for union employees in March 2015, and the city council voted to restructure the department in September 2015.

The union also said the city council ran afoul of state law by passing the resolution approving the restructure in violation of its own charter, and claimed the move was retaliatory toward union members in response to critical statements made in public by union members. This, it said in the suit, violated both the U.S. Constitution and Minnesota Constitution.

In its response to the lawsuit, the city of Brainerd denied many of the union's allegations, arguing the district court lacked jurisdiction over the subject matter of the plaintiffs' claims, the plaintiffs' lacked standing to assert many of their claims and the plaintiffs failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing the suit.

Following summary judgment entered in January of this year, the union sought an appeal in March, arguing the court erred in its ruling.

While siding with the union on the unfair labor practices claim, the appeals court affirmed the district court decision to grant summary judgment to the city of Brainerd on the remaining matters. The appellate judges ruled the city did not violate the law concerning city charters, and found the union failed to produce enough evidence for its retaliation claims.

The appeals court found neither the union nor the city disputed the facts of the case—the city did eliminate the positions of the five full-time firefighters, which in turn dissolved the union. But, the city stated on appeal, decisions in previous related cases support the argument the reorganization was "an act of inherent managerial policy, and thus, is not an unfair labor practice."

The city cited state law, which says "a public employer is not required to meet and negotiate on matters of inherent managerial policy," and pointed to two cases involving restructuring of public school employees supporting its position. In those cases—one in which an assistant principal position was eliminated, and another in which the positions of seven union employees were axed—different courts determined the employers acted properly within state law.

What separates those cases from the Brainerd Fire Department case, however, was those unions continued operation.

"We conclude that it is not an 'inherent managerial policy' for an employer to reorganize a department when the reorganization interferes with the existence and administration of a union," Klaphake wrote.

According to court records, no date was set for additional hearings in the district court. In addition to Klaphake, the appeals court decision was rendered by Judge Renee L. Worke and Judge Lucinda E. Jesson.