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Morgantown firefighters continue legal battle with city

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Gaujot will reconsider his previous ruling in a lawsuit filed by Morgantown firefighters against the City of Morgantown.

The suit is over lost wages in holiday compensation.

The initial lawsuit, filed in 2019, claimed firefighters were given holiday compensation for only 12 hours of a 24-hour shift.  By law, firefighters must receive 1.5 times their pay, or equal time off for hours worked on holidays.

After the lawsuit was filed, Morgantown corrected the holiday payment method for firefighters.  The firefighters continued their battle in court for back wages from before the city’s correction.

In September, Gaujot ruled in favor of the city after a virtual hearing.  The firefighters then filed a motion to alter or amend the order, requesting a live, in-person hearing with the judge, stating video hearings can put parties at a visual and auditory disadvantage.    

Wednesday afternoon they gathered for their in-person hearing in Monongalia County Circuit Court. Gaujot’s courtroom filled with firefighters from all over the state including representatives from Charleston, Huntington, Martinsburg, Weirtona nd Wheeling, who came to support their own.

Gaujot said he realized he had not given the firefighters time to enter their objections before he entered the order.

Attorney Teresa Toriseva, who represents the firefighters, began the argument saying the main error they felt the court committed was that Gaujot found and ruled that this was not a wage under the Wage Payment and Collection Act (WPCA).  

Toriseva cited several WPCA provisions and definitions saying that firefighters holiday pay is a “fringe benefit” and that wages shall include fringe benefits.  In addition, she said additional time off that was proposed as a remedy in the judge’s ruling didn’t provide remedy for those who have retired or moved on to other departments or jobs.

Ryan Simonton, one of the city’s attorneys, responded saying these arguments could have been raised before and are simply being raised now to repeat before the court.

Erin Webb, who also represents the city, continued the argument saying the city has not violated the WPCA.  She said the firefighters have been afforded the agreed-upon 12 hours of leave on a legal holiday under the holiday statute and when that fringe benefit has become payable, the city has paid it in their paychecks or when they separate.

After hearing additional arguments from both sides, Gaujot asked the city’s attorneys what it would mean for the city if he were to award the firefighters the estimated $6 million in damages.

Simonton replied, “That would be more than one-third of the remaining funds on hand for the city for this budget year.  It’s practically impossible to pay that amount and continue operating public services.”  

The judge asked Toriseva for a proposal from the firefighters on how to remedy the situation and gave the city two weeks to respond to it thereafter.

“I want to be right. I want to consider everything. And I think that’s within my discretion,” he said.

“It’s about more than money,” Toriseva said.  “If it were just about money they would have taken the settlement, but it’s also about getting it right and fairness and balance.  As you can see, they were already willing to take substantially less than we were already able to prove in court and the city has dug in.  It really is on the city to resolve this.”

Toriseva said the firefighters are ready, willing, and available to discuss more settlement negotiations but previous attempts have broken down and they don’t want to waste more money paying mediators or lawyers when they’re not getting anywhere.

“The firefighters are ready to go the full distance on this.  The issue is statewide,” Toriseva said.  “This issue affects every firefighter in the state and so our firefighters are committed to go the distance on this issue.”