By Jim Tuttle
The Public Opinion
CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Chambersburg's lawsuit against a firefighters' union could easily spend months in the court system and cost borough taxpayers thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Borough Solicitor G. Bryan Salzmann said the suit, filed May 8 against International Association of Firefighters Local 1813 and two of its officers, was a necessary reaction to a situation that threatened public safety. The union has been court-ordered to stop "encouraging, sanctioning and supporting a secondary boycott of volunteer fire services."
"Borough council feels that it's extremely important that volunteer fire fighting in the borough not be discouraged," Salzmann said.
The initial civil complaint was filed in the county's court of common pleas, along with a petition asking for an immediate injunction to stop the union's calls for a boycott. Judge Richard Walsh granted the injunction the same day, scheduling a preliminary hearing on the matter for May 11.
Salzmann said immediate injunctions are no longer effective after five days, so civil court procedure requires a preliminary injunction hearing to establish a longer-term injunction. The defense asked to postpone the hearing and the borough agreed, as long as the injunction was upheld in the meantime.
"In order to obtain a preliminary injunction, the plaintiff has to show that they were likely to succeed in the case and the right to relief was clear," Salzmann said. "It's a pretty high standard that the borough had to meet."
Judge Angela Krom is assigned to the case. She signed off on the preliminary injunction, which is effective until at least June 1, and the case is now pending an evidentiary hearing. Krom can schedule the hearing "upon the convenience of the court," Salzmann said.
When the hearing takes place, both sides would be expected to call witnesses who would testify and present evidence for their case. Krom will hear what is presented and determine whether it is justified to keep the injunction in place as the case moves forward.
The borough's ultimate objective is a permanent injunction barring any call for a volunteer boycott by the union, its president Patrick Martin and vice president Scott McNew. The lawsuit does not ask for any type of compensation, monetary or otherwise.
Salzmann said the lawsuit could be settled at the evidentiary hearing stage, but not unless the defendants agreed to let the injunction stand permanently. If that does not happen, the case will then move into the "discovery" phase.
During discovery, both sides can submit written questions and depose witnesses to build their cases. If the plaintiff and defendants don't come to an agreement before then, the lawsuit will eventually enter the trial phase.
Although either side can request a trial by jury, trials in injunction cases are more commonly presided over and decided by a judge, Salzmann said. The trial can take multiple days and will entail the most extensive presentation of the evidence and argument before the court.
Salzmann said it was difficult to estimate how long this type of case might take if it went to trial.
"It could take a significant period of time, though," he said. "If it's not resolved, could it last years? Yeah, that can happen."
As the borough's contracted attorney, Salzmann will be paid his normal rate of $161 an hour to work on the lawsuit. His fee is covered by taxpayer dollars from the borough's general fund.
Salzmann was unable to estimate how many billed hours may go into the suit, but said "we're into the tens of hours" for the paperwork that has been generated and filed with the court so far. The initial complaint and petition for injunction each consisted of more than 100 pages including attachments.
"When I'm involved in a court case, I try to be extremely thorough," he said.
Copyright 2012 Public Opinion