Supreme Court won't hear Duluth's appeal; officer expected to return to work after skywalk incident
The Minnesota Court of Appeals, a district court judge and an arbitrator all previously ruled in favor of officer Adam Huot and his union.
A Duluth police officer who was ordered reinstated after he was fired for dragging a handcuffed man through the downtown skywalk system is expected to return to work after the Minnesota Supreme Court dealt a final blow to the city's hopes of reversing the controversial decision.
The high court on Wednesday denied the city's petition for further review in the case of Adam Huot, keeping in place rulings from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, a district court judge and an arbitrator.
Huot, a nine-year veteran of the force with six substantiated complaints on his record, was seen on body camera video dragging a homeless man down a hallway, slamming his head against a door, in the May 2017 incident. He also did not report the use-of-force to supervisors, as required by department policy.
When administrators learned of the incident from fellow officers, they moved to fire Huot. But the union challenged the action. Arbitrator Mario Bognanno called the officer's actions "unreasonable" but said there was no "just cause" for termination, reinstating Huot after a 13-month unpaid suspension.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden and a three-judge appeals panel subsequently rejected the city's motion to vacate the arbitration award.
The city filed its petition to the Supreme Court on Oct. 2 — making a final attempt to reverse an arbitrator's June 2018 ruling in favor of Huot and his union. The high court, per standard practice, denied the petition in a one-page order without elaboration.
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.
City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said he expects city and police administration will meet with Huot and his union representatives soon to make plans to return the officer to work. He said that will include discussion of Huot's pay for the past 17 months, his specific work assignment going forward and medical and psychological examinations mandated by the arbitrator.
Johnson said he doesn't regret taking the case as far as the Supreme Court.
"The city believes we went down the right path," he told the News Tribune. "We wish it had turned out a different way, but we accept the decision of the court and we will move forward accordingly."
Sgt. Dan Boese, president of the Duluth Police Union, said he's pleased that the courts have consistently upheld the arbitrator's authority in settling employment disputes.
“Adam Huot has a lot to offer to the Duluth Police Department and the citizens of Duluth," Boese said. "He is relieved that this matter is finally over and he welcomes the opportunity to return to work to prove to the community, the department and himself that this incident should not define him as a police officer or as a person.”
While it's rare for a court to reverse an arbitrator, the city argued Bognanno's findings violated a "well-defined and dominant public policy" against the use of excessive force by police officers. The appeals court agreed that Huot's actions were "contrary to a public policy," but the judges said the arbitrator's award of reinstatement without back pay was not .
"Looking back at our petition for review, we talked about how Duluth residents and visitors are protected by our 155-member police force, whose mission it is to provide a safe Duluth for all by strengthening relationships and serving in a respectful, caring and selfless manner," Johnson said. "We talked about the core beliefs of the police department and the social contract between the police department and the community. How every interaction leaves a lasting impression and presents an opportunity to build trust, and that our officers serve in a kind, caring and compassionate way.
"As I look back on our petition for review, we made a strong case," Johnson said. "But it's the Supreme Court that makes the decision on which cases it is going to look at. Only a small minority of cases get awarded or are accepted for review, and ours was not one of those."
Union officials acknowledged that Huot's actions were "inappropriate and reflected poorly on all police officers." However, they said the collective bargaining agreement between the city and its officers calls for arbitration as the final means of settling employment disputes.
"We believed, as did the arbitrator, that Adam Huot is a good cop who made a bad decision which did not justify termination,” Boese said. “Officer Huot is a person of high integrity who took responsibility for his actions and has been very remorseful about the impact his conduct has had on the individual in question, the community, the department (and) his fellow officers.”
City officials acknowledged that their path was made "more difficult" by a February decision in a case featuring similar issues. In a back-and-forth employment dispute, the Supreme Court upheld an arbitrator's decision to give a Richfield officer his job back after he was fired for failing to report a use-of-force incident.
The court in that case ruled that "the city's contract with the union gives the arbitrator the authority to decide what constitutes just cause for termination."