Dallas to pay $61.7M in backpay to firefighters, police
The settlement avoids hundreds of millions in claims that would have been owed if a Collin County jury had ruled in favor of the public safety workers
By Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — The Dallas City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a $61.7 million settlement for four of six long-running back pay lawsuits filed by police and firefighters.
The sizable agreement avoids hundreds of millions in claims that would have been owed if a Collin County jury had ruled in favor of the public safety workers. But the city remains exposed to a massive potential liability in two larger class-action lawsuits in Rockwall County.
Still, relief washed over the council and plaintiffs' attorneys in the cases. The lawsuits, based on a 1979 voter referendum, have been bouncing around state courts since the mid-1990s. An attorney handling the case and some plaintiffs have died since it began.
Now, the plaintiffs will get paid in the coming months, and the city will avoid the gamble of a high-stakes trial.
"People are just so glad to see it come to an end," said Michael Gallagher, a plaintiffs' attorney. "This is the longest running serial in the history of jurisprudence. This makes Gone With the Wind look like a short."
The dispute boils down to the language of the referendum — police and firefighters went to voters in 1979 to ask for a raise — that calls for the pay differential between ranks to be "maintained." Police and firefighters believed that meant maintained forever. And they were bolstered by past city attempts to apparently make later pay raises compliant with the language. But city attorneys argued that the language legally bound the city to that language only for that year.
Both sides still say, publicly at least, that they would have prevailed in a trial.
"The city of Dallas did nothing wrong," Mayor Mike Rawlings said Tuesday. "I've looked at this every which way, and we did what this referendum said we were going to do."
Lin McCraw, a Collin County-based plaintiffs attorney, said he believed the evidence was "absolutely overwhelming" on the side of police and firefighters. But he said a settlement was in the best interest of his clients, who have been waiting for years to see money and would have to wait years more if the case ended up at the Texas Supreme Court. He also said his clients might have had some difficulty collecting on a judgment against the city.
Only council member Lee Kleinman — whose tenuous alliance with police and fire associations soured into a public feud last year — griped about the settlement.
Kleinman noted that while paying off the settlement using the city's current bonding capacity won't mean a tax rate increase, it's still a cost to be borne by taxpayers.
He blamed police and fire associations for hitting taxpayers with a costly "trifecta" — pay increases, pension contribution increases and the pay lawsuits.
"This has been amazing," Kleinman said. "We were just clearly cut apart with three major things."
But the pay lawsuit was not an association issue, and police and firefighters also agreed in the Legislature to pension benefit cuts and their own contribution increases. And chief financial officer Elizabeth Reich said the city would be able to recruit police and firefighters more effectively with the pension stabilized.
Still, Kleinman mockingly applauded the associations.
"These unions have stuck it to the taxpayers for $125 million a year and we're all just saying, 'Great,'" Kleinman said.
Kleinman then said he'd support the settlement anyway because "we need to get out from under it." His support after his lamentations elicited laughter from his colleagues.
Council member Kevin Felder was more laudatory, crediting city leaders with "a masterful" job negotiating the deal.
"At the end of the day, you can't continue to kick it down the road," Felder said. "It's time to do the right thing. Let's settle this case and move on."
The vote did not finalize the settlement. A judge will still have to approve the deal, and the payments for each client will have to be calculated. McCraw said the "devil is always in the details in these large, complex settlements."
"It's hard to get a grasp on it until they're completely done," McCraw said. "But we've got a good framework. Everybody's working in good faith."
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