The city of Duluth is asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to hear its case for firing a police officer that dragged a man along the floor by his handcuffs after a Court of Appeals decision ruled the officer should keep his job.
The petition, which was filed Wednesday, is an attempt to get the state’s highest court to once again examine the authority of labor arbitrators, who under collective bargaining agreements often have the final say in clashes over police discipline.
In 2017, Duluth police officer Adam Huot handcuffed a man who was refusing to leave the Duluth skywalk system. The man fell to the ground and refused to walk.
According to court documents, Huot grabbed the chain connecting the cuffs and dragged the man about 100 feet through the skywalk. The man’s head struck a metal doorway.
Huot did not report his use of force, as is required by the police department. He later was dismissed for this policy violation, as well as for using unreasonable force.
The Duluth Police Union, which Huot belongs to, challenged his firing. A labor arbitrator — who has binding power to settle the dispute under the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union — ruled that Huot’s conduct warranted discipline but not dismissal.
The officer was awarded reinstatement without back pay or benefits for the 13 months he was effectively suspended while the dispute was being settled.
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. Judges in both cases ruled in favor of the police union, writing that the extent to which the courts can review an arbitrator’s decision is “extremely narrow.”
The city’s argument hinges on the interpretation of an exception written into law that “public policy” interests in police discipline should allow arbitrators to be overruled in certain instances.
“Upholding the award reinstating Huot, ignores the rights of citizens to be free from police brutality and the unreported use of force — rights which are clearly and unmistakably grounded in public policy,” the city’s attorneys wrote in the petition to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court, which only hears a small percentage of petitions it receives, will have to decide whether to take on the Duluth case. Earlier in the year, the Supreme Court rejected the City of Richfield’s efforts to fire an officer who struck a Twin Cities teenager after an arbitrator ruled in the officer’s favor.
The case was closely watched for the broader implications it posed for police discipline. But the Court of Appeals ruling in the Duluth case implied that there is still ambiguity in whether the public-policy exception exists in Minnesota.
Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said he thinks Duluth’s case is “more compelling” than Richfield and argued providing clarity in this legal matter should be of interest statewide.
“Minnesotans must be able to trust their law enforcement,” city attorneys wrote. “They must be able to trust that peace officers with a demonstrated proclivity for unreasonable use of force will not be reinstated to their positions despite the well-reasoned decisions of police chiefs to terminate such officers.”