TRENTON, N.J. (CN) - Union firefighters in New Jersey were fired due to the anti-union bias of their municipal employer, and should be allowed to return to work, the state's appellate court ruled Monday.
The decision, rendered by New Jersey's Appellate Division, found that firefighters in one of Monroe Township's fire districts were laid off due to an inherent bias against unions, even though the town claimed they fired the firefighters to save taxpayers money.
Monroe employed three full-time firefighters, including plaintiffs David Shapter and Michael Mangieri until 2007. In 2008, after the third full-time firefighter retired, Monroe's board of fire commissioners decided not to fill the vacant position, instead hiring two per-diem firefighters.
That decision did not sit well with the local firefighter's union, whose lawyer requested that the town hire a third full-time firefighter. In response, the Monroe Fire Commission Chairman, Charles DiPierro, wrote back that "the board did not appreciate" the request and "was looking into the possibility of eliminating" the full timers altogether.
At a subsequent meeting between the union and the board, one of the fire commissioners allegedly told Shapter that "the board is thinking of pushing the union out of the station up to the other end of town," according to court documents.
The relationship further deteriorated in 2009, when the board yanked certain duties away from the fulltime firefighters, and later got worse when DiPierro allegedly said that the town might not renegotiate the firefighters' contract, which was up at the end of that year.
In January 2010, the Monroe County budget did not indicate any staff reduction, but at a meeting the following month, the board passed a resolution cutting the full-time positions and replacing those firefighters with volunteers.
They did this, they said, in order to lower the fire district tax rate.
The union filed a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission alleging retaliation based on an anti-union bias.
A hearing examiner found the board "acted with hostility," and wrote that the motive of tax reduction was unbelievable because the board used the $150,000 in tax savings to purchase a new vehicle for the fire chief and new radios. The tax savings for the 2011 year, according to PERC's findings, was three cents per taxpayer.
The hearing officer ordered the Monroe County to offer Shapter and Mangieri their jobs back for the same pay, benefits, responsibilities, and hours. The county appealed, arguing that DiPierro was the only board member who had any bias against the union.
However, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled against the board, saying the case fell under the "dual motive" test, in which the asserted legitimate justification - in this case, the attempt to save taxpayers money - was bogus and that the real reason for terminating the firefighters was anti-union bias.
"A substantial inference of anti-union animus pervaded the board activity during the relevant timeframes," wrote Judge Douglas Fasciale.
The judge added that there was "substantial credible evidence" that other fire commissioners shared DiPierro's hatred of the union, and retaliated because the town contracted with a neighboring fire district's firefighters for that year to provide weekday fire services.
The amount paid to that other district was the same as would have been paid to Shapter and Mangieri, the court held.
As to the county's claims that PERC exceeded its authority in finding for the fired firefighters, Fasciale found, "The Legislature has empowered PERC with 'broad authority and wide discretion' based on the agency's expertise and knowledge in this 'highly specialized area of public life.'
"We conclude there was no abuse of that authority as to the remedial remedy imposed by PERC. Certainly, its decision does not preclude the Board from taking any future action, including termination, for legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons," he wrote.Follow @NickRummell
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.