Firefighters in New Haven were justified in their decision to break away from their state labor organization and can move forward in their lawsuit to recoup allegedly misspent dues, according to a court ruling.
International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 825 has been attempting to sever its relationship with the Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association of Connecticut for several years following disagreements about political spending. When local firefighters voted to break away from UPFFA in January 2016, the state chapter launched a legal battle to corral them back into the organization, going so far as to send them Local 825 into collections for $50,000 in back payments. Local 825 President Frank Ricci said he was shocked by the group's response.
"I believe the UPFFA attempted to circumvent the court with frivolous charges in an effort to remove the leadership of New Haven Fire Fighters and hide their actions from public scrutiny," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "The UPFFA has to honor our choice to disaffiliate."
Hartford Superior Court Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher affirmed the local union's right to disassociate with the state organization. He granted a temporary injunction that prevents the state from continuing to seek payment from the local, and has allowed the New Haven firefighters to move forward with a lawsuit aimed at recouping money it alleges was misspent by state officials. He said UPFFA's claims of back payments were "without legal merit."
"The Court finds as a matter of law that the International Association of Firefighters Local 825 has disaffiliated," the judge said. "Any further collection action of any kind against the local … would be legally unjustified."
UPFFA President Peter Carozza did not respond to a request for comment about whether the state chapter will appeal the decision.
Judge Moukawsher said the UPFFA's reaction to the split may have breached its fiduciary duty to represent the interests of its members. He stopped short of awarding any money to the local at the early stages of the lawsuit, saying deeper digging would be necessary to establish any financial misuse of the $200,000 that the local paid the state chapter to represent its legislative interests in Hartford or Washington, D.C.
"The union will probably be able to prove some of its claim that its dues were misused but the Court has insufficient evidence at this moment to justify any order offsetting the dues likely owed," he said. "Much will be revealed by the outcome of this lawsuit."
Ricci has grown accustomed to high profile litigation over the years. He became the face of the battle over affirmative action when he successfully sued the city of New Haven for throwing out the results of a promotion exam when no black candidates passed the test. In 2009, the Supreme Court affirmed the fairness of the test, allowing Ricci and 19 other white and Hispanic firefighters to be promoted.
Ricci said the preliminary injunction "vindicated" the local's actions. Local 825 was represented by the non-profit Fairness Center. Nathan McGrath, the center's director of litigation, said the ruling was only a small victory. The firefighters and their attorneys are more focused on delving into years of financial records to see how their money was used by state officials.
"We're now turning our attention to proving our client's allegation that the state union breached its fiduciary duty," McGrath said. "The Court has already taken note of some questionable expenditures by the state union, and we believe that we will be able to present additional evidence to support our client's breach of fiduciary duty claim."