STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
City of Truman,
City of Truman, City Council
Nicholas P. Granath, Granath & O'Donnell, P.A., Suite 310, Firstar Bank Building, 8800 West Highway Seven, St. Louis Park, MN 55426 (for relator)
James A. Wilson, Johnson, Berens & Wilson, 110 Downtown Plaza, Box 271, Fairmont, MN 56031 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Forsberg, Judge.
Relator Lee Williams appeals by writ of certiorari his termination as chief of police by the city council, contending that the council violated its own ordinances by failing to provide him with a hearing and the reasons for his termination. We reverse and remand.
The City of Truman has a personnel policy set forth in its city ordinances. Section 207.02 provides that the policy applies to all city employees with limited exceptions, none of which applies to relator's position. Section 207.17 contains disciplinary provisions. It provides that all disciplinary action shall be for "just cause" and gives the disciplined employee the right to demand a hearing or use a specified grievance procedure.
Section 207.17 also establishes a four-step process of disciplinary action: (1) oral reprimand; (2) written reprimand; (3) suspension without pay; and (4) dismissal. The dismissal provision requires the city to give written notice to the employee five days before the effective date of the dismissal and to state the reasons for the dismissal. The dismissed employee may respond to the charges orally or in writing.
On July 1, 1997, the city council held an emergency special meeting at city hall. The notice of the meeting stated that the subject matter of the meeting was "preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual employed by the City." The mayor, four city council members, the city attorney, relator, and one other individual attended the meeting. Relator exercised his option of having a closed meeting and was then asked to leave the room.
When the meeting was reopened, relator returned. The mayor informed relator that the council had decided to terminate his employment contract. The mayor asked relator if he wished to resign, but relator declined. The council passed a motion (three ayes, one abstention) ordering relator's termination. The meeting was adjourned without further discussion.
On July 9, 1997, relator sent a letter to the mayor and city council members requesting a response in writing indicating the reasons for his termination and a full open hearing in front of the city council. The city attorney denied relator's requests and explained that relator's contract did not entitle him to notice of the reasons for his termination. Relator petitioned this court seeking review by writ of certiorari of the council's decision to fire him.
Relator contends that his termination was unlawful because the city violated its own ordinances. Specifically, the city did not give him notice or a hearing and refused to state the reasons for his termination. Truman, Minn., Ordinances § 207.17. It is undisputed that the city failed to follow the procedures set forth in its ordinances.
The city, in response, contends that relator is not protected by the city ordinances because his employment contract made him an at-will employee. The interpretation of a contract is a question of law, unless an ambiguity exists. Trondson v. Janikula, 458 N.W.2d 679, 681 (Minn. 1990). A contract is ambiguous when its language "is reasonably susceptible to more than one meaning." Id.
The city contends that the language in relator's employment contract stating that "[n]othing in this agreement shall prevent, limit or otherwise interfere with the right of the City to terminate the services of the Employee at any time" created an at-will employment relationship. The city interprets the limitation language in the contract to mean that relator is not protected by the city ordinances. But the language does not support the city's interpretation. The contract states "nothing in this agreement shall prevent, limit * * *." The language is not ambiguous. The only logical interpretation is that the employment contract itself does not provide any additional job protection. The employee is not exempted from protection provided by other sources, such as the city ordinances.
The city does not cite any authority to support its contention that a city can contract around the protections of its own ordinances. Thus, the city's actions were based on an erroneous legal theory. Accordingly, the case is remanded to the city council for a hearing and other procedures necessary to afford relator his rights under the city ordinances.
Reversed and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10. The city also points to a merger clause in the contract that states: "[t]he text herein shall constitute the entire agreement between the parties."