The saga between the city of Brainerd and the Firefighters Union Local 4725 representing the former Brainerd full-time equipment operators — ongoing for more than five years — continues its crawl through the court system.
Attorneys for both sides of the lawsuit — Pamela VanderWiel representing the city and Marshall Tanick representing the union — appeared Thursday, June 25, for a scheduling conference through Zoom before Judicial Officer Patricia Aanes. The purpose of the conference was to schedule upcoming court hearings and set up a timeline.
The hearing comes after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Oct. 9, 2019, that the city of Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the union, resulting in five full-time equipment operators losing their jobs.
“As you know, the case dates back a long time and we've come a long way,” Tanick said. “The Supreme Court ruled that there was an unfair labor practice by aggravating the labor contract, so therefore I think this is where we are in the case, your Honor, is that there is a determination of liability, as a matter of law, leaving the remedy to be resolved. ... leaving only the question of how to fix it.”
VanderWiel agreed with Tanick.
“We’ve been at this for about five and a half years and I think this is the first time Pam and I have ever agreed,” Tanick said.
Tanick said they didn’t have enough notice to get their motion ready for the conference hearing, but the paperwork is almost complete. Tanich said they are preparing to bring a motion to the court to order the reinstatement of the fire department and reestablishing the firefighters union.
“We would view this (reestablished the union) as injunctive relief and a permanent injunction. I won't discuss the merits of that right now but that would be the posture of our motion, asking for the court to enter an injunction reinstating the union and the contract as existed at the time of the breach.”
According to the law dictionary, injunctive relief is a court-ordered act which is requested or granted in a petition for damages and or contract performance.
VanderWiel said the timeline is within the court’s and Tanick’s discretion, but said it may be a little premature because there may be more issues to address, such as back pay for the former Brainerd full-time equipment operators — Mark Turner, Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis.
“I don’t want to put words in your mouth Marshall, but that’s fine ... but that’s what I thought you’d be expecting,” VanderWiel said.
VanderWeil continued to say, “Certainly, the city is going to oppose the reinstatement of these firefighters. I think that looking at the remedy as a whole, it probably makes sense, rather than doing it piecemeal, but certainly if the court would prefer to hear that motion first, then we can address that.”
After discussion, the motion hearing was scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Aug. 10 to give the attorneys time to get their motions ready. The attorneys also agreed to set a discovery deadline for December, so they can get the ball moving to address the issue of damages.
Recap of the Supreme Court ruling
The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals decision that reversed the District Court’s decision, which granted summary judgment in favor of Brainerd. A court grants summary judgment when it finds the facts of a case lack merit, therefore eliminating the need for a trial.
The Supreme Court’s decision stated the city engaged in unfair labor practices prohibited by two Minnesota statutes by undergoing a department reorganization resulting in the dissolution of a bargaining unit and by interfering with the existence of an employee organization, which constituted a prohibited unfair labor practice.
The Firefighters Union Local 4725 filed the lawsuit against the city in January 2016 in Crow Wing County District Court, claiming the city engaged in unfair labor practices under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act.
With the reversal by the Minnesota Supreme Court, the case will go back to the Brainerd district courtroom for a decision on a remedy.
In 2010, because of a budget deficit following a decrease in both property and tax values and state aid, the city began discussing restructuring the fire department, with talks to eliminate the full-time equipment operator positions.
On July 6, 2015, the Brainerd City Council approved notifying the International Association of Firefighters of the city's intent to move to a paid on-call department. Local 4725 is a local chapter within the association. The city then began negotiations with union representatives on the restructuring.
The intent to move to a paid on-call department came on the heels of the loss of a service contract with Crow Wing Township, the third such loss in a year. In 2014, the city of East Gull Lake and Fort Ripley Township both terminated their service agreements with the fire department. In a letter dated Dec. 3, 2015, Maple Grove Township informed the city it would be leaving the fire service district, effective Dec. 31, 2016.
In January 2015, the city and the union negotiated and signed a new three-year collective bargaining agreement covering the full-time union firefighters, but not the non-union paid on-call firefighters. Six months later, however, the city informed the union in writing of its desire to restructure the fire department to save money by eliminating the full-time positions.
On Sept. 21, 2015, the city council approved a resolution restructuring the Brainerd Fire Department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department. The resolution passed on a unanimous vote.
Currently, there are two full-time firefighters with the fire department -- Fire Chief Tim Holmes and Deputy Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Dave Cox.