Judge grants firefighters $345K in 'frivolous' leave time suit

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks was targeted in a lawsuit that accused the city of paying him and union members for duties outside of work


Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN — A Travis County judge sided mostly with the city of Austin in a lawsuit accusing city officials of signing a contract that paid members of the local firefighters union for activities outside of their job duties.

In granting the firefighters' motion for summary judgment Tuesday, state District Judge Amy Clark Meachum ruled the contract's "leave time" provision is constitutional. She did, however, keep alive a part of the complaint that questions the city's implementation of that $1.25 million program.

A Travis County judge ruled Tuesday that the provision in the firefighters' contract with the city is constitutional. (Photo/ Tribune Content Agency)
A Travis County judge ruled Tuesday that the provision in the firefighters' contract with the city is constitutional. (Photo/ Tribune Content Agency)

But overall, the firefighters prevailed. Last month, their attorneys argued the lawsuit was frivolous, and the judge agreed. She ordered the two Austin residents behind the 2017 lawsuit, Mark Pulliam and Jay Wiley, to come up with $115,250 for the opposing counsel's fees and also sanctioned them to pay $230,500 to the firefighters.

"Sanctions in this case are important because they deter lawsuits that are meant to attack the rights of employees to engage in associational activities," said Diana Nobile, the attorney representing the Austin Firefighters Association.

The firefighters, Nobile said, had clearly complied with the state's gift clause that permits the use of public funds to an individual who uses the money for city interests.

The $345,750 in fees and sanctions is excessive, said attorney Rob Henneke, who is representing the two men on behalf of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

"We intend to fully litigate on appeal and believe the trial court erred and that the amount the firefighters union requested was excessive and abusive," Henneke said.

The collective bargaining agreement between the city and the union, which went into effect in 2017, sets aside 5,500 hours of leave time that firefighters can request for activities that advance the city's interests. The hours are valued at $1.25 million.

On May 1, Pulliam and Wiley's lawyers argued the firefighters were using the time off to attend boxing matches and fishing trips. They said Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks spends roughly a quarter of his workday on activities that do not serve the city's interests or derive a benefit for the city.

They also accused the city of exercising lax oversight over the distribution of the hours. That argument remains alive in the lawsuit after Tuesday's ruling.

But Nicks, the firefighters' lawyer told the court, works over 40 hours per week, and the time he spends on other activities like meeting with lobbyists is not counted in his compensation.

"We always thought we were complying with the law," Nicks said Wednesday. "That's why we structured the contract the way we did. We're glad the judge felt the same way."

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©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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