The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday rejected Duluth’s attempt in 2017 to fire a police officer for dragging a man along the floor by his handcuffs, affirming a district-court decision that the officer should keep his job.
The three-judge panel hearing the appeal ruled it did not have justification to overturn the decision of the third-party arbitrator who first heard the dispute. The ruling comes after a Minnesota Supreme Court decision made earlier this year that also raised broader questions about the authority of labor arbitrators, who under collective bargaining agreements often have the final say in legal clashes over police discipline.
In the Duluth case, the city and the police union are at odds over what constitutes fair discipline for officer Adam Huot, who used excessive force in a May 2017 altercation.
Huot responded to calls in the Duluth skywalk system, where he encountered two men in a stairwell, according to the 11-page Court of Appeals opinion. He told the pair to leave but found them in another part of the skywalk system later when responding to a second call.
Court documents say Huot, who was accompanied by two other officers, again told the men to leave and said they would be mailed tickets for trespassing. When the men still did not leave, Huot and another officer cuffed one man’s hands behind his back.
As they were walking him to a police car, the handcuffed man fell to the ground and said: “I ain’t gonna make it easy for you guys.”
Hout grabbed the chain connecting the man’s handcuffs and dragged him about 100 feet through the skywalk to an elevator. On the way, the man’s head struck a metal door frame.
Huot’s fellow officers helped the man to his feet and supported him during the rest of the walk to the squad car. Huot did not report his use of force that day, as the police department required.
The City of Duluth dismissed Huot, saying he had violated the police department code of conduct and use-of-force policy, court documents said.
The Duluth Police Union, of which Huot is a member, challenged his firing. The dispute was referred to an arbitrator, who has binding power to settle the matter under the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union.
Mario Bognanno, the arbitrator, ruled in June 2018 that Huot’s conduct warranted discipline but not dismissal. The officer was awarded reinstatement “without back pay and benefits” for the 13 months he was effectively suspended.
The city challenged the arbitrator’s decision first in district court, then in the state Court of Appeals, arguing that the order to reinstate Huot should be overruled.
In her decision to affirm the district court ruling, Judge Tracy Smith of the Minnesota Court of Appeals wrote that the court’s ability to review an arbitrator’s decision is “extremely narrow.”
“Even though Huot’s use of force was contrary to a public policy against unreasonable use of force, the arbitrator’s award of reinstatement without back pay is not,” Smith wrote.
The city can petition the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear its case. In a similar case decided earlier in the year, the state’s highest court sided against the City of Richfield, which tried to fire a police officer for striking a teenager.
At the crux of the both city’s arguments is the interpretation of an exception written into law that “public policy” interests in police discipline should allow arbitrators to be overruled in certain instances.
Duluth city attorney Gunnar Johnson said the city has not decided whether it will move forward, though he feels it has a more “compelling” argument than Richfield.
“Ever since we got the arbitration decision in this case, we knew that we had a tough road ahead of us,” he said. “But we hold our officers at a very high standard in the City of Duluth and felt like this so far was the right path for the citizens of Duluth.”
Sgt. Ryan Morris, president of the Duluth Police Union, said he was pleased with the Court of Appeals ruling and will continue to push for Huot to be fully reinstated and receive the pay he would have earned since the arbitrator’s 2018 ruling.
“Neither we nor Officer Huot will acknowledge that what he did was right,” Morris said. “It’s certainly not reflective of how the Duluth Police Department operates. But we also feel very strongly that his actions do not warrant his termination.”
Huot had previously received a one-day suspension for repeatedly punching a man in the head to get him to drop a shard of glass, according to court documents. He also received coaching, but not discipline, for two other incidents before May 2017.
In his decision to reinstate Huot, Bognanno wrote that while the matter was “serious,” the officer’s conduct did not warrant dismissal because the collective bargaining agreement calls for “progressive discipline.”
“Huot and his career as a police officer is at a crossroad,” Bognanno wrote in the initial 2018 arbitration. “ ... A third use of force violation would be his last.”