Court Upholds $1.6 Million Award Against East Cleveland For Staffing Violation

The Ohio Court of Appeals has upheld a $1,631,290.04 award against the City of East Cleveland for violating the minimum staffing requirement in the collective bargaining agreement with East Cleveland Firefighters, IAFF Local 500. The case dates back to 2016 when the city began refusing to honor the ten-person minimum on-duty requirement.

The facts and travel of the case are rather troubling. The city breached what appears to be a valid minimum staffing requirement in a collective bargaining agreement, then proceeded to contest the union’s efforts to address the breach. When the city lost at each juncture, it appealed each possible issue prolonging the resolution of a 2016 breach until 2022. Quoting from decision:

  • In Article 9, Section 1 of the CBA, the City agreed to maintain, “on a daily basis, a minimum Safety Fire Fighting Force of ten (10) on-duty firefighters” and, if “personnel are not available to meet the minimum staffing requirements, fire fighters [sic] will be recalled on overtime to maintain the ten (10) minimum safety-manning requirements.”
  • In early April 2016, the fire chief issued a memorandum that stated, “there will be layoffs constituting fifteen (15) part time member[s] effective immediately at 0830 hours on April 12, 2016. This will leave the daily staffing level at eight (8).”
  • In response, the Union filed a grievance and submitted the grievance to arbitration pursuant to the CBA, alleging that the City was in violation of Article 9 of the CBA.
  • In addition, the Union filed a verified complaint in the court of common pleas on April 15, 2016, seeking a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, declaratory judgment, and injunctive relief against the Appellants pending arbitration (“the first court case”).
  • On the same day, the trial court granted the Union a temporary restraining order preventing the Appellants “from unilaterally breaching or otherwise altering the terms of Article 9 of the CBA.”
  • The trial court granted the Union’s request for a preliminary injunction on April 25, 2016, finding the City in contempt of the court’s April 15, 2016 temporary restraining order and holding “[a]s of April 22, 2016, Defendants shall be fined $750 for each day of non-compliance with the Temporary Restraining Order of April 15 and the Preliminary Injunction Order * * *.” The trial court increased the daily sanctions amount on August 9, 2016, to $1250 per day.
  • The Union filed a motion on August 26, 2016, requesting the court to “reduce monetary obligations to judgment” regarding the sanctions imposed based upon the City’s contempt of the trial court’s temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
  • The trial court granted the motion on September 9, 2016, and awarded $103,000 in sanctions for contempt from April 22, 2016, through August 25, 2016.
  • The Appellants appealed and this court affirmed the trial court’s decision finding the City in contempt and awarding sanctions.
  • Following an arbitration hearing, the arbitrator issued a decision on March 12, 2017, finding that the City breached the CBA by reducing staffing levels at the fire department, requiring the City “to immediately restore staffing at the [fire department] to * * * ten (10) [firefighters]/shift,” and ordering the city “to make all affected [firefighters] whole in back pay/lost benefits who would have been entitled to overtime on the call-out list under the terms of the [CBA] at any/all dates post April 12, 2016” (“the Arbitration Award”).
  • On March 6, 2018, the Union initiated a new case when it filed an “Application for Order to Confirm and Enforce Arbitration Award” in the court of common pleas (“the second court case”).
  • The Union named the City as the sole defendant in this action.
  • On the same day, in the first court case, the Union also filed a second motion requesting the court to “reduce monetary obligations to judgment” regarding the sanctions for the Appellants’ contempt of the trial court’s preliminary injunction from August 26, 2016, through March 12, 2017. The first and second court cases were consolidated.
  • The trial court granted the Union’s motion to reduce monetary obligations to judgment on April 5, 2018, and awarded $248,750 in sanctions against the Appellants.
  • On appeal, this court reversed and remanded, finding “that the trial court should have held a hearing before reducing the sanctions to judgment.”
  • On remand, the trial court held a hearing on the Union’s second motion to reduce sanctions to judgment. The trial court granted the Union’s motion and awarded an additional $248,750 in sanctions plus interest of $15,994.11 for a total of $264,744.11.
  • Again, the Appellants appealed. This court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
  • Following an evidentiary hearing on the Union’s “Application for Order to Confirm and Enforce Arbitration Award” (the “confirmation hearing”), on December 22, 2021, the trial court issued a journal entry confirming and enforcing the March 2017 arbitration award, finding “pursuant to the arbitration award, the total back pay owed to the bargaining unit members, including statutory interest, is $1,188,219.36.”
  • In the same journal entry, the court concluded “that the current amount owed to [the Union] by the Defendants for sanctions and fees previously awarded by this court is $443,070.68.”
  • Combining the two amounts, the court clarified that it granted judgment in favor of the Union in the total amount of $1,631,290.04, plus statutory interest from the date of the entry.
  • It is from this December 22 Order that the Appellants appeal.

The city raised four issues on appeal: abuse of discretion, not following the law of the case, res judicata, and latches. The Court of Appeals rejected all four arguments, upholding the trial court’s ruling. Here is a copy of the decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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