The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed a ruling that would give a Duluth police officer his job back after he was fired for dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk system.
The appeals court concluded that a district judge did not err in declining to overrule an arbitrator, who reinstated officer Adam Huot to his position more than a year after he was terminated.
The department sought to fire Huot after he was seen on video pulling the man by the chain of his handcuffs and slamming his head against a door in the May 2017 incident, which he did not report to supervisors. But arbitrator Mario Bognanno said there was no "just cause" for termination, instead imposing what amounted to a 13-month unpaid suspension.
The city of Duluth appealed, first to 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden and then to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the decision violated a "well-defined and dominant public policy."
But the three-judge panel, which heard oral arguments in July, upheld the arbitrator's authority in its 11-page opinion.
"In sum, even though Huot’s use of force was contrary to a public policy against unreasonable use of force, the arbitrator’s award of reinstatement without back pay is not," Judge Tracy Smith wrote on behalf of the court.
City, union officials react
The city has kept the 36-year-old Huot on unpaid leave as it continued to contest the arbitrator's findings. With nine years of service, Huot had an annual salary of $73,522 at the time he was first placed on leave.
Sgt. Ryan Morris, president of the Duluth Police Union, said he was "obviously very happy, but not overly surprised" by the ruling. He said despite Huot's missteps, he has "done a number of good things for the department" and should be welcomed back.
"That's the decision that's been happening for a while now, affirming our position," Morris told the News Tribune. "We're eager for the city to reinstate him and get him back to work."
City Attorney Gunnar Johnson, however, would not rule out of the possibility of asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case. A petition to the high court would need to be filed within 30 days.
But that may also be an uphill battle, with the state Supreme Court in February upholding an arbitrator's decision to give a Richfield officer his job back after his department fired him for slapping a man in the back of the head, twice shoving him and using profanity after issuing a careless-driving citation.
"We knew that the Richfield case, which was decided also in 2019, was going to make this a difficult case for the city of Duluth," Johnson said Tuesday. "But we feel that our argument, our case on public policy is stronger than the Richfield case. And we feel that this is the right thing to do for the city of Duluth and the citizens of Duluth. We have a very high standard for policing into Duluth, and we want to uphold that."
Arbitrator's discretion affirmed
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 a 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, as required by department policy.
Fellow officers, who said they were left "shocked," later reported the incident. Administrators subsequently moved to terminate Huot, whose work history included six past substantiated complaints.
But Bognanno gave Huot his job back in June 2018, without back pay. He called the officer's actions "unreasonable" and noted his history of disciplinary action, but found termination to be too severe.
With state law mandating arbitration for public labor agreements, the appeals court noted that judicial review of those decisions is intended to be "extremely narrow."
The panel added that the city's position "overstates" the arbitrator's concerns that Huot would re-offend.
“The arbitrator’s statements are best understood not as asserting that Huot will misuse force again, but as explaining why a 13-month unpaid suspension is necessary to ensure that he does not," Smith wrote.
Morris said the city has been "trying to get more than one bite at the apple" by repeatedly contesting the arbitrator's findings in court. For that reason, he said, Tuesday's ruling is an important one for public-sector unions in Minnesota.
"No matter what you think of the actual Adam Huot incident, I think it has kind of morphed now into a decision that affirms what we've collectively bargained for and what our agreement with the city has been all along," Morris said. "What it really comes down to is the due process of an officer. And these decisions have affirmed the role of the arbitrator in our system."
Johnson, though, said the issue is far from settled, with limited case law providing guidance for the courts. Despite the recent Richfield decision and a handful of other cases that have been heard in state courts, the appellate panel noted in Tuesday's opinion that it remains unclear whether the "public-policy exception" cited by the city even applies under Minnesota law.
"We feel that if there is a public-policy exception that this case is one that fits it well," Johnson said. "It's hard to figure out the lay of the land at this point because ... there is some ambiguity as to what the rules are as we sit here today."