Editorials, Opinion

Firefighters v. Morgantown: Set trial date or settle

In mid-June, Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Gaujot punted the International Association of Firefighters Local 313’s lawsuit against the City of Morgantown back to mediation.

IAF Local 313 filed the lawsuit against the city for holiday back pay in 2019. Previously, firefighters were being compensated for 12 hours on holidays (an 8-hour shift plus half for holiday differential). However, it was confirmed in May of this year that firefighters do work 24-hour shifts and should, therefore, be entitled to time-and-a-half pay for holidays (36 hours of pay).

IAF Local 313 seeks to apply that reasoning to the last five years and collect unpaid holiday wages.

When the two parties appeared before Gaujot — two years after the lawsuit was filed — the judge sent the case back to mediation, even though mediation had already failed. At that time, he indicated he might wait until the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals made a decision on a similar case.

On Monday, the West Virginia Supreme Court made its decision: It dismissed the City of Martinsburg’s challenge to Judge Laura Faircloth’s ruling that holiday pay be based on professional firefighters’ actual work shift of 24 hours. Faircloth’s ruling stands.

Now it’s time for Gaujot to stop punting the case to mediation and let the case go to trial.

Mediation has failed four times. The city and the firefighters aren’t that far apart, but neither will budge. Morgantown is offering a settlement of $1.7 million, or about half of what is owed in back pay. The firefighters union won’t settle for less than $1.95 million.

The parties are only $250,000 apart, and it’s absurd the City of Morgantown would rather spend years litigating and paying lawyers’ fees than just meet the IAF Local’s request. At this point, probably far more than that quarter-of-million-dollar difference has been spent on legal fees. If anything, the city should be grateful the firefighters are willing to settle for less than they are owed.

It’s equally absurd that Gaujot has repeatedly tossed away the case like a game of hot potato. There have been multiple pre-trial hearings since the city and IAF Local 313 first appeared in his courtroom in June, with another set for Sept. 16 — exactly six months since that first appearance.

Since mediation has obviously failed, it’s time to take the case to court.

It’s a complex case, yes. But “complex” is not an excuse for Gaujot to not do his job.  He can’t push it down the road forever.

Of course, the City of Morgantown may change its mind by mid-September. Given the precedent set by Faircloth in Martinsburg, the city might want to seriously consider paying up the $1.95 million before Gaujot has the chance to rule Morgantown owes the firefighters the full back pay balance — to the tune of about $2.4 million — instead.

Either way, it’s silly, expensive and wasteful to drag this case out any longer: Settle or set a trial date, but just be done with it.