Ten months after a University of Minnesota police officer was fired for a 2016 off-duty altercation in St. Paul, an arbitrator has ruled that he can reclaim his job.

Calling it one of the “most challenging cases” that he had ever encountered, arbitrator Phillip Finkelstein wrote in his March 13 decision that the university must hire back Phillip J. Lombardi within two weeks. But, “given [the] serious nature of his failures,” the arbitrator ruled that Lombardi will not receive back pay.

Finkelstein concluded that the officer’s sterling record of service — noting his “many commendations and awards” and lack of sustained complaints — swayed him toward the decision to overturn Lombardi’s dismissal.

Lombardi was fired for grabbing a woman by the neck after she kicked his SUV during an altercation outside Cossetta’s in downtown St. Paul on July 8, 2016. Several witnesses intervened and Lombardi left the scene, but reported the incident to internal affairs later that day.

The woman, a St. Paul city attorney, suffered a slight bruise on her collarbone, but was nonetheless traumatized by the experience, Finkelstein wrote.

“On one hand, the fired employee is a highly decorated and effective Police Officer who operated at a high level for many years,” he wrote. “On the other hand, there is a victim who was traumatized by the Grievant’s actions no matter whose version of the event one believes and an employer who is legitimately concerned over the Grievant’s ability to serve as a safe and effective officer in the future.”

Lombardi’s status as of Thursday wasn’t immediately clear.

The university said in a statement Thursday that while it respects the arbitrator’s decision, it would “continue to hold its officers to a high standard of conduct.”

Lombardi, who first joined the force in 2003, was later charged with three misdemeanors — two counts of fifth-degree assault and one count of disorderly conduct.

The U placed him on paid administrative leave before reassigning him to a paid, non-policing position at the University Recycling Center. He remained there until he pleaded guilty in January 2018 to a single count of misdemeanor assault, under a plea agreement that dismissed and vacated the charge after a year, as long as he stayed out of trouble, the arbitrator said.

The U, after an internal affairs investigation and a hearing, decided to fire Lombardi last May, saying that it had lost faith in his abilities to continue to serve as a police officer.

But, Finkelstein wrote, that argument didn’t hold much weight, since the U still employed three officers who had been disciplined “as result of serious errors, some including potential use of force, and it has not affected their effectiveness as University Police.”