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Lawsuit between Brainerd and firefighters continues

Five years in the making, the lawsuit between the city and the union is coming closer to a resolution. City of Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the firefighters union.

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The Crow Wing County Judicial Center is off Laurel Street in Brainerd.

Five former full-time equipment operators for the Brainerd Fire Department will not be coming back to work at the fire hall — at least not at this time.

Crow Wing County District Judge Patricia A. Aanes of the 9th Judicial District filed the court documents Jan. 12 including findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order involving the lawsuit between the Firefighters Union Local 4725 representing the former full-time equipment operators and the city of Brainerd.

Judge Aanes granted the union’s motion for summary judgment on the fact that an unfair labor practice occurred, which is consistent with the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision. However, she denied the union’s partial summary judgment on reinstating the union, saying the court was not rejecting reinstatement of the union as a final remedy but doing so now, before all information was gathered through the legal discovery process, was not supported.

“For as long as these issues have been pending, the matter is now close to the end of the discovery period, when all parties will be able to negotiate fully informed,” the judge stated in the court order document. “If mediation fails, then final proceedings can occur with all appropriate information having been disclosed.”

The court reiterated summary judgment is not appropriate at this time, given there are several questions that remain. In order to determine damages, the city and the union need all the discovery in order to best evaluate what remedy and relief should be, the court document stated.

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The lawsuit has been ongoing for more than five years and it came back to district court after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the firefighters union. The union consisted of five full-time equipment operators who lost their jobs — Mark Turner, Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis.

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of a Court of Appeals decision, which reversed the district court’s decision originally granting 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.

RELATED: State Supreme Court rules against city of Brainerd in firefighters union case The dispute dates back to 2015, when the city moved forward with restructuring the fire department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department.
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 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.

The result of the Supreme Court’s ruling brings the case back to Crow Wing County District Court for a judge to rule on a remedy. Attorneys for both sides made their arguments Oct. 15, 2020, and Judge Aanes took the matter under advisement.

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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 pink T-shirts to support the fight against breast and other cancers. The Brainerd City Council restructured the fire department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

The court order

Aanes ordered the city and the union to participate in mediation with the Bureau of Mediation services as soon as possible. If this is not available, any mediator agreed by both parties may be utilized.

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A party seeking a temporary injunction must show legal remedies are inadequate and an injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable injury.

RELATED: Judge hears arguments in Brainerd firefighter union lawsuit If the five former firefighters and the union are reinstated, it would cost the city of Brainerd $578,752 each year, along with other expenses such as restructuring the fire department, training, certifications and equipment. If this happens, the city may have to increase the levy by at least 9% for 2021.
According to the memorandum filed in court, Minnesota courts consider five factors when determining a temporary injunction:

  • The nature and background of the relationship of the parties,

  • The balance of harms between the parties,

  • The likelihood of success on the merits,

  • Public policy,

  • Administrative burdens in the supervision and enforcement of the injunction.

The union stated all five of these factors weigh in favor of injunction. The city stated the union is not entitled to the remedy of injunction relief stating they failed to show the former union members “cannot be made whole through an award of monetary damages.”
The court looked at each of the five factors, to come up with the order to deny the request for injunctive relief.

Regarding the relationship of the parties, the unfair labor practice occurred years ago and the “status quo” for the last five years has been the disbandment of the union. The court document stated, “While it is important that this matter move to a speedy and final conclusion, reformation or reinstatement of the Union is not preserving the status quo at this point. Further the Court declines to do so on a Summary Judgment basis.”

When considering the balance of harms, a district court weighs the harm to be suffered by the

party. The party, in this case the union, seeking the injunction must establish that “legal remedies are inadequate” and that an injunction is necessary “to prevent great and irreparable injury,” the judge’s memorandum stated. The body of case law contemplates a wide range of remedies for unfair labor practices.

The memorandum stated the court is not rejecting reinstatement of the union as a final remedy. Rather, the focus is on the request for reinstatement at this point in the proceeding. The court accepted the longer the unfair labor practices remedy is in doubt, the more potential harm could occur for all parties, including the challenges of uncertainty.

The judge said reinstatement before the close of discovery is not supported.

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The court set March 31 for the deadline for discovery and disclosures materials to be entered into the court system. Discovery in terms of law are the materials each party gathers, such as evidence, findings of facts and other information on the matter.

On the factor of likelihood of success of the merits, both the union and the city have different theories on the best remedy in the matter. On the public policy factor, both parties bring important public policy considerations, the court order stated.

On the last factor, administrative burdens, the union requests the court simply direct the parties to take all necessary steps to reinstate the union.

“While that direction may be appropriate as a final outcome, on an injunctive basis the logistics and details have inherent substantial administrative burdens, among other considerations,” the judge wrote in the memorandum.

The city stated it would cost $578,752 each year for the firefighters to be reinstated in salary and benefit costs; and another $39,250 for retraining, recertifying and equipping the employees. The city also stated the fire station would have to be converted back into a 24-hour facility.

After looking at all the factors, the judge did not find an injunction is necessary before the close of the discovery in the case.

The city and the union both agree this is a case of first impression, meaning the legal issues have never been decided by a governing jurisdiction.

The court document concluded that summary judgment is granted on the prior issue of whether an unfair labor practice has occurred. As to remedy and relief, the request for summary judgment was denied.

Marshall Tanick is the attorney representing the union. William Everette is the attorney representing the city. Both attorneys were unavailable for comment.

History

In 2010, because of a budget deficit following a decrease in both property 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 a motion to notify 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.

Previously 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.

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.

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.

JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at jennifer.kraus@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5851. Follow me at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl on Twitter.
Related Topics: CENTERPIECE
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