A judge refused to overturn a ruling that gave a Duluth police officer his job back after he was fired for dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk system in May 2017.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden denied the city's motion to vacate an arbitration award reinstating officer Adam Huot. City officials moved to terminate Huot, a nine-year veteran with a history of excessive-force complaints, in wake of the incident, but the Duluth Police Union contested the move.
Hylden, in a 14-page order dated Friday, was critical of Huot's actions but said he did not have grounds under existing case law to override the arbitration process that is mandated in the collective-bargaining agreement between the city and its officers.
"This court would have no difficulty condemning the excessive use of force, particularly within the cultural context of this case," the judge wrote. "That, however, is not the court's charge."
Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said the decision will be appealed.
"It's a nicely written and well-reasoned order, and he acknowledges that officer Huot exceeded the level of force and violated department policy by failing to notify supervisors of his use-of-force - and the arbitrator found that violation, too - but Judge Hylden basically said that based on the case law he is looking at, he cannot overturn the decision," Johnson said.
Huot was one of three officers called to remove two men from a building on May 20, 2017. Body camera footage shows one man, 30-year-old Brandon Houle, dropping to the ground and telling officers, "I ain't gonna make it easy for you guys."
Within seconds, without consulting his fellow officers, Huot is seen grabbing Houle by the chain on his handcuffs and forcibly dragging him down the hallway. Houle's head narrowly misses one post before striking the door with a loud thud. Houle, who is Native American and was homeless at the time, suffered a bump on the head but was not otherwise injured.
The video does not show Huot checking on Houle or inquiring about his condition. He also did not report the use-of-force incident to his supervisors. His fellow officers, who said they were left "shocked" by Huot's actions, did so later in the same shift.
According to arbitration and court documents, Huot was the subject of 12 complaints during his time as an officer - six of which were substantiated. Chief Mike Tusken testified that no other officer in his 155-member department necessitated as much oversight, coaching, training and discipline as Huot.
After the union filed a grievance over Huot's firing, arbitrator Mario Bognanno gave him his job back without the benefit of back pay for the year he was on unpaid leave. While calling the officer's actions "unreasonable" and noting his history of disciplinary action, the arbitrator said the department failed to show "just cause" for termination.
Hylden, while declining to reverse the arbitrator, noted that a forthcoming Minnesota Supreme Court decision could have significant ramifications in Huot's case.
The state's high court in October heard oral arguments in a similar case involving a Richfield police officer who was terminated for excessive use-of-force, failure to report the use-of-force and violating his training.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals in June reversed an arbitrator who gave that officer his job back, agreeing with Richfield's position that the decision "violates public policy" because it "interferes with the (Richfield Police Department's) legal obligation to establish and enforce minimum standards of conduct for its police officers."
That case was argued before the Supreme Court just days after Hylden heard oral arguments in Huot's case. But unless and until the high court upholds that arbitration reversal, Hylden said he remains bound by a 1993 Supreme Court precedent.
Johnson said he hopes the Richfield decision will come down within the next 60 days, allowing for reconsideration at the district court. Otherwise, he said, the city would have no choice but to take Huot's case to the Court of Appeals.
"We're all really waiting for that Richfield decision, and hopefully this will be a lot easier if the Supreme Court comes down strongly in favor of allowing cities to terminate when somebody does something so egregious that it violates this public policy concern," Johnson said.
Sgt. Ryan Morris, president of the Duluth Police Union, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Officials in the past had said Huot's actions "were inappropriate and reflected poorly on all police officers" but said the incident did not warrant termination.
"Officer Huot has accepted responsibility for his actions and is eager to return to the department," former president Tom Maida said in June. "Officer Huot extends his apologies to Mr. Houle, his fellow officers, and to the citizens of our community."
Johnson said Huot remains on unpaid leave.