Judge rules court can consider injunction to rescind Poquonnock Bridge firefighter layoffs

A New London Superior Court judge ruled Monday that the court may hear an injunction request to rescind the layoff of nine firefighters in Groton.

A lawyer for the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District filed a motion on Aug. 8 to dismiss the request, saying the court did not have jurisdiction because the matter is still in the grievance and arbitration process.

Judge Thomas Moukawsher disagreed.

“Assuming then, for the moment, that the firefighters lives are in danger, the case law makes clear that the court has jurisdiction because the other remedies available are inadequate, because they cannot address an emergency and would be futile to resort to, because the firefighters could be injured or dead before they could be heard in arbitration,” he wrote in a four-page ruling. In denying the motion to dismiss, Moukawsher also wrote: “No party should take from this ruling that actual danger exists. The only thing the firefighters have earned is a hearing.”

He told lawyers for both sides earlier Monday that he planned to schedule the hearing later this week.

The fire district laid off nine firefighters on July 25, and the department has run with one engine and a minimum of three firefighters on duty since. The department had two engines and at least five firefighters on duty before the layoffs.

Last month, nearly 100 firefighters and their families marched from the Claude Chester Elementary School parking lot to the Groton Senior Center to protest the layoffs, saying they would jeopardize public safety.

F. Jerome O’Malley, lawyer for the fire district, argued in a brief that the firefighters already filed a class action grievance protesting the layoffs.

“It has long been held that courts lack jurisdiction to consider such claims against a public employer where its employees have failed to exhaust grievance procedures in their collective bargaining agreement,” O’Malley wrote.

But Eric Chester, lawyer for the Poquonnock Bridge Fire Fighters Association, argued that the layoffs put firefighters at risk and that urgency trumps any administrative rule.

“Courts are empowered to act in the face of real and imminent risks to worker safety,” he wrote in his brief.

In his decision, Moukawsher wrote that he must assume the facts presented to him so far are true, and “construe them most favorably to the firefighters.”

Moukawsher said the firefighters claim that it could take months for a decision from the Department of Labor, State Board of Mediation and Arbitration.

He added: “Other courts have held that, even where administrative remedies apply, safety emergencies warrant court interventions.”

He cited a Waterbury case in 1991, in which a court judge prohibited the City of Waterbury from closing any fire companies until the fire chief or acting chief certified, in writing, that the closings wouldn’t risk the health and safety of firefighters. The judge in that case also required that training and planning occur before any closings.

In the Groton case, lawyers for both sides, the fire chief, the president of the union and firefighters who were laid off listened during arguments in court Monday. Firefighters referred questions to Chester.

d.straszheim@theday.com

Twitter: @DStraszheim

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