WPPA Scores Major Court Victory for Jailers & Dispatchers

After months of litigation, Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Richard O. Wright issued a declaratory ruling on June 14, 2012, and held that Marquette County’s jailers and dispatchers constitute “deputy sheriffs,” and as such, they fall under the “public safety employee” exemption under Wisconsin’s new collective bargaining laws. This ruling means that these members are entitled to continue to bargain contracts with the County to the same extent as other law enforcement employees.

Under new bargaining law changes that went into effect last year, most public employees maintain very few collective bargaining rights. Those new laws provide an exception, however, for “public safety employees,” which includes any individual employed as a “deputy sheriff.”

Earlier this year, Marquette County took the position that, despite the fact that its jailers and dispatchers had been sworn to take the deputy sheriffs’ oath and were classified as “protective occupation participants” for retirement purposes, they did not meet the statutory definition of “deputy sheriffs.” The County then took steps to treat their jailers and dispatchers as general municipal employees, who have virtually no say in the terms of their wages, hours, and conditions of employment.

In ruling in favor of the WPPA, Judge Wright concluded that the very nature of the jailers’ and dispatchers’ protective status met the statutory definition of a “deputy sheriff,” and by extension, afforded them the bargaining rights under the public safety exemption. Therefore, the County could not treat them as general municipal employees with almost no bargaining rights.

In defending its actions, Marquette County attempted to downplay the fact that it had classified these employees as “protective occupation participants” for nearly 30 years. In order to make this classification, the law requires an employer to certify that those employees are actively engaged in law enforcement duties. The County argued that its doing so was a mistake, but Judge Wright held that there was no reason to believe the jailers and dispatchers were not engaged in law enforcement duties, and that it was not “entirely obvious” that the County’s actions for such an extended period of time had been in error.

This ruling contradicts the recent holding of the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) when it decided a similar case arising out of Douglas County earlier this year. In that case, which the WPPA is actively appealing, the WERC held that jailers who were classified as protective status employees were not public safety employees because they were not sworn in to take an oath of office by the sheriff. In this latest Marquette County Circuit Court case, Judge Wright correctly noted that, despite the fact the Marquette County employees were sworn, the statute defining what constitutes a “deputy sheriff” does not make that a requirement.

From a broad perspective, this is particularly good news for our protective status members who are confronting employers that are trying to apply to them the limited bargaining laws for non-public safety employees. This case will be very useful as a persuasive precedent in the WPPA’s appeal of the WERC decision in the Douglas County case. In addition, the Marquette County decision could be used to apply on a statewide basis if the County appeals Judge Wright’s ruling and it is ultimately upheld by the Court of Appeals. In either event, the WPPA’s efforts and the result they produced will be invaluable in assisting our membership no matter which case comes to fruition first. Staff Attorney Roger W. Palek, Business Agent Mike Goetz, and local association president Greg Bond all contributed to this victorious effort, and one which continues to show the strength of the WPPA’s advocacy for its members.

Anyone with questions about this case may contact WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer at palmer@wppa.com.

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