Supreme Court case regarding fire union contract sets precedence
Date posted: March 28, 2013
SHERIDAN — Four Sheridan firefighters will soon receive back paychecks to compensate for “step increase” pay raises denied by the city of Sheridan due to budget shortfalls in September 2010. On March 20, the Wyoming State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sheridan firefighters union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 276, reversing a summary judgment by Sheridan’s district court in favor of the city.
The city will owe more than $6,500, which will be split between the firefighters listed in the suit according to step level and years of service, union President George Neeson said.
The case centered on a disagreement between the firefighters union and the city of Sheridan on how to interpret a portion of their collective bargaining agreement regarding pay raises.
“Both sides felt deeply about their position, or we wouldn’t have gone to court over it,” Fire and Emergency Services Director Terry Lenhart said, speaking on behalf of the city. “The local court agreed with the city, and the Supreme Court agreed with the Local 276. We respect that decision.”
Every spring, city staff and representatives from the firefighters union hold negotiations to discuss wages, benefits, working conditions, job description changes and other pertinent issues. The two parties then draft contracts for that year before the city finalizes its budget, Neeson said.
Facing budget issues in 2010, the Sheridan City Council voted to freeze the salaries of all city employees. The city sent a memo to the fire department in September 2010 stating annual 5 percent step increases in pay would be suspended, effective July 1, 2010.
“We believed that was a violation of the contract,” Neeson said. “To change the contract requires that we negotiate it. They should have come to us and asked to open up the contract for that specific item.”
The collective bargaining agreement also became effective July 1, 2010. It stated that every firefighter who received a satisfactory performance rating would move up one step on the pay grade table and get a pay raise. That year, five firefighters had received satisfactory evaluations, and the union claimed the city owed those firefighters additional pay in the amount of $6,651.78, according to the case opinion filed by the supreme court.
Of the five firefighters who were denied pay raises, four elected to take part in the legal proceedings. One firefighter currently remains with the Sheridan fire department.
The five firefighters eligible for the raises were Levi Dominguez, Klay Condos, Jon McConahay, Andy Fried and Brooks MacRae.
Of those, only Klay Condos is still employed with the fire department. Dominguez, now a Sheridan City Council member for Ward 3, chose not to participate in the lawsuit.
The union filed a grievance with the city on behalf of the firefighters. The city denied the grievance, saying the contract did not contain specific requirements for mandatory annual pay raises.
The union filed a complaint against the city in district court and both parties asked for a summary judgment.
Judge John Fenn granted a summary judgment to the city stating that the contract was silent on the issue of step increases, clearly giving the city discretion in the award of pay raises. The district court denied admission of external evidence by the union showing that in years past the city had asked to include pay freezes in the firefighters contract before it was finalized, Neeson said.
The union appealed that decision to the Wyoming State Supreme Court in May 2012 and went to court in November 2012.
The union maintained its position that step increases in pay have been automatic since the mid-1980s and that the contract contained no specific language stating otherwise. The city said a provision in the agreement required mandatory pay raises only in two situations (when an employee is re-graded or reclassified into a dual role), enabling the city to grant or deny raises that didn’t fit the specified situations.
The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that the contract was not clear and that external evidence was admissible in the case. During the testimony in November, city staff did not dispute that the five firefighters were eligible for step increase pay raises.
The Supreme Court reversed the district court’s summary judgment in favor of the city and required the district court to enter a summary judgment in favor of Sheridan firefighters IAFF Local 276.
“It’s not about the money. It’s not a big chunk of money in the grand scheme of things,” Neeson said. “The whole point of the lawsuit was the fact that we believed there was a contract violation. We’ve been afforded that right to bargain for those things. When we want to change the contract, we have to approach each other to negotiate. It goes both ways. It protects them and it protects us.”
Neeson said there were no ill feelings. He did say the union was disappointed it had to spend so much money to resolve the issue but that it had to be done to set a precedence for future firefighters and city departments. Court costs, which were paid with firefighter union dues, totaled between $30,000 and $40,000, Neeson said.
Lenhart said the money to pay the firefighters will come from the general fund for money allocated to the fire department. He doesn’t believe cuts will have to be made elsewhere to accommodate the payout.
“I don’t think it’s that contentious of an issue,” Lenhart said. “It was a disagreement, and we followed the procedures allowed and will respect the decision.”