Minnesota City Found in Contempt For Violating Injunction in FD Dispute

A Minnesota judge has found the City of Orono to be in contempt of court for violating her earlier order in a suit brought by the City of Long Lake over the breach of a fire protection agreement. The two cities, along with the City of Medina, are parties to an agreement whereby the Long Lake Fire Department would provide services to the three communities.

The fire protection agreement, which dates back to 2002, does not expire until December 31, 2025. In 2022, Orono decided it wanted to create its own fire department.  After Orono hired a former Long Lake fire chief to serve as its chief; purchased a ladder truck that Long Lake was in the process of acquiring; and began recruiting Long Lake personnel to jump ship, Long Lake filed suit alleging breach of contract.

Long Lake sought injunctive relief, which was granted on July 14, 2023. The injunction prohibited Orono from continuing to recruit Long Lake firefighters; violating the fire protection agreement; or otherwise hindering Long Lakes use of stations in Orono.

In October, Long Lake sought to have Orono held in contempt for continuing to recruit Long Lake firefighters; threatening a Long Lake firefighter; and initiating plans to build an addition to a station currently in use by Long Lake.

This week, Hennepin County District Court Judge Laurie J. Miller found Orono to be in contempt, concluding as follows:

  • The Court finds that on September 27, 2023, Orono held a Firefighter Recruitment Open House.
  • The Court further finds that, as its title reflects, this event was an event to recruit firefighters to work for Orono.
  • Information concerning the event was publicly disseminated in multiple ways, including via general advertising through paper flyers, through posts on social media, and through emails from a general city listserv.
  • Chief Van Eyll also communicated directly about this event with eleven individual Long Lake firefighters via text message.
  • At the time Chief Van Eyll sent these text messages, three of the recipients were former Long Lake firefighters, and eight were current Long Lake firefighters.
  • At the time Chief Van Eyll sent these text messages, none of the recipients had yet been hired as Orono firefighters.
  • The Court finds that these text messages constituted “recruiting Long Lake firefighters to begin working for the Orono Fire Department,” within the meaning of the Court’s July 14th Order for Temporary Injunction.
  • The Court also finds that the communications by Mayor Walsh and Chief Van Eyll with Mr. Farley regarding Mr. Farley’s text messages with Mr. Mileski violated the July 14th Order’s injunction against recruiting actions by Orono.
  • The Court finds that Orono has taken concrete steps toward construction of a structure on the Fire Station 2 property, including by touring the property with an architect engaged for the purpose of developing plans for the new structure and formulating preliminary plans for building the structure.
  • The Court further finds that Orono took these steps unilaterally, without informing Long Lake, consulting with Long Lake, or seeking Long Lake’s approval for expansion of Fire Station 2.
  • The Court finds that Orono’s planning for the construction of an adjacent structure designed to physically connect to Fire Station 2 is a use of Fire Station 2 within the meaning of the Court’s Order for Injunction.
  • To the extent Orono has taken concrete steps in its planning process, including engaging an architect, walking the property with the architect to discuss what Orono wants to construct, and developing preliminary plans for its proposed addition of a building immediately adjacent to Fire Station 2, all without either including Long Lake in the planning process or seeking Long Lake’s agreement to be left out of the planning process, Orono has violated the July 14th Order.

Judge Miller will be scheduling a hearing between November 27 and December 13, 2023 to determine the appropriate penalty, and informed Orono that it will face a $2,000 per violation civil contempt penalty for each future violation.

Here is a copy of the contempt order.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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