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Firefighters Union Local 4725 v. City of Brainerd

Supreme Court of Minnesota

October 9, 2019

Firefighters Union Local 4725, et al., Respondents,
v.
City of Brainerd, Appellant.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Marshall H. Tanick, Teresa J. Ayling, Meyer Njus Tanick, PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondents.

          Pamela L. VanderWiel, William J. Everett, Anna L. Yunker, Everett & VanderWiel, P.L.L.P., Rosemount, Minnesota, for appellant.

          M. William O'Brien, Timothy J. Louris, Emily L. Marshall, Miller O'Brien Jensen, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amici curiae Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1005; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 160; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 949; International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49; and International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 70.

          Cort C. Holten, Jeffrey D. Bores, Chestnut Cambronne PA, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association Legal Defense Fund.

          Susan L. Naughton, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae League of Minnesota Cities.

         SYLLABUS

         1. A public employer's violation of Minn. Stat. § 179A.13, subd. 2(2) (2018), a provision in the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) that prohibits the unfair labor practice of interfering with the existence of an employee organization, is not excused because the public employer's interference was a matter of "inherent managerial policy" under another provision in PELRA, Minn. Stat. § 179A.07, subd. 1 (2018).

         2. The plain language of Minn. Stat. § 179A.13, subd. 2(2), which prohibits the unfair labor practice of interfering with the existence of an employee organization, does not require that the public employer's interference be motivated by antiunion animus.

         Affirmed.

          OPINION

          LILLEHAUG, JUSTICE.

         This appeal concerns a labor dispute under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA), Minn. Stat. §§ 179A.01-.25 (2018). Firefighters Union Local 4725 (the Local) and union president Mark Turner sued the City after it restructured its fire department and eliminated all of the union positions. The district court granted summary judgment to the City. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the City committed an unfair labor practice under Minn. Stat. § 179A.13, subd. 2(2), which prohibits public employers from "interfering with the . . . existence . . . of any employee organization," and remanded to the district court. The City sought further review, acknowledging that the decision to restructure the fire department interfered with the existence of the Local, but contending that the decision was an authorized exercise of the City's "inherent managerial policy" under a different section of PELRA, Minn. Stat. § 179A.07, subd. 1. We affirm the court of appeals' decision, but with reasoning that differs in part.

         FACTS

         The Local is an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters and represents five firefighters who were employed by the City on a full-time basis. The five firefighters were the entire membership of the Local at the time of the City's decision to restructure the fire department in 2015.

         In 2010, the City experienced a budget deficit following a decrease in both property tax values and state aid. The City attempted to restructure its fire department by eliminating the full-time fire equipment operator (FEO) positions and have the FEO duties performed by paid on-call (POC) firefighters, who receive nominal compensation and limited benefits. All of the FEO employees, but none of the POC firefighters, were members of the Local. The Brainerd City Council passed a resolution to adopt this plan, but later rescinded it due to public opposition.

         In January 2015, the City and the Local negotiated and signed a new three-year collective bargaining agreement that covered the union FEO employees, but not the nonunion POC firefighters. Six months later, the City informed the Local in writing that the City again sought to restructure the fire department to save money. The restructuring would eliminate the FEO positions as a cost-saving measure. The Local vigorously opposed the City's proposal to lay off all of the Local's members.

         In September 2015, the City Council passed a resolution to restructure the fire department by eliminating the FEO positions, using POC firefighters to perform the work previously performed by the FEO employees, and creating a full-time assistant fire chief position. The effect of the restructuring was that the union FEO employees lost their jobs and their duties were performed by nonunion firefighters.

         In January 2016, the Local filed a complaint in the district court alleging four counts. Count I-the only claim at issue in this appeal-alleged that the City, in eliminating the FEO positions, laying off the FEO employees, and promoting a POC firefighter to the new assistant-chief position (rather than rehiring an FEO employee), had engaged in unfair labor practices prohibited by PELRA.[1] In Count I, the Local claimed that the City had engaged in three types of prohibited unfair labor practices:

(1) interfering, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in sections 179A.01 to 179A.25;
(2) dominating or interfering with the formation, existence, or administration of any employee organization or contributing other support to it; [and]
(3) discriminating in regard to hire or tenure to encourage or discourage membership in an employee organization[.]

Minn. Stat. § 179A.13, subd. 2(1)-(3).

         The City moved for summary judgment on all counts. It is important for the analysis that follows to understand the legal position that the City took. The City acknowledged- indeed, asserted affirmatively-that its actions had eliminated the Local.[2] In its statement of undisputed facts in support of summary judgment, the City represented that, "[a]s a result of the restructuring, the FEOs were laid off and the [Local] was dissolved." The City further asserted that the Local's claim concerning the City's promotion of a nonunion POC firefighter to the new assistant-chief position was meritless because PELRA did not apply after the Local members "were no longer public employees and Firefighters Union Local 4725 no longer existed." The City reemphasized this assertion in its reply memorandum, stating that its decision to promote "cannot be construed as an act meant 'to encourage or discourage membership in an employee organization,' especially one that no longer exists."

         The City's representation that its actions had eliminated the Local was supported by testimony from two City officials. During the fire chief's deposition, he was asked whether "there would be a union left without any members" employed by the City. He responded, "No." The fire chief also stated that it was "correct" to say that "the restructuring . . . eliminate[d] the union" and, as a result, "the union would no longer exist." Similarly, the City administrator stated during his deposition that it is "a fair presumption" and "logical" to say that "the union would be eliminated" if "their positions were eliminated" by the City.

         The Local cross-moved for partial summary judgment. Relevant to this appeal, on Count I, the Local argued, among other things, that the City's actions had violated section 179A.13, subdivision 2(2), of PELRA by "interfering with the . . . existence or administration" of the Local.

         In response, the City argued that, even though the Local had been eliminated, the City's actions were lawful under-indeed, authorized by-another provision in PELRA, Minn. Stat. § 179A.07, subd. 1, which deals with "matters of inherent managerial policy." Such matters include "the organizational structure, selection of personnel, and direction and the number of personnel." Id. The City argued that decisions by a public employer on these matters, such as those that prompted this lawsuit, may well interfere with the existence of employee organizations like the Local, but are ...


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