U.S. District Judge Renee Bumb sided with the Atlantic City firefighters union Friday and sent its case against the city's state overseers back to Superior Court, where Judge Julio Mendez had already issued an order temporarily halting the state's plans for the fire department.
The firefighters are fighting action to alter their contract and lay off 100 people under a new law giving the state vast powers over Atlantic City government and public-sector unions. The firefighters' case is the first legal challenge to the controversial takeover law.
Mendez's earlier order temporarily blocked the state from imposing any contract changes, including schedules, pay scales, and benefits, or proceeding with layoffs.
A hearing set for Monday before Mendez has been postponed.
Bumb, in District Court in Camden, ruled that the plaintiffs, as "masters" of the complaint, had the right to have it heard in state court even if there were analogous claims under federal law. The state, as defendant, cannot be allowed to "involuntarily drag plaintiffs into federal court" or "commandeer" the lawsuit, she ruled.
Whether the firefighters can fight off the state's effort to commandeer their collective bargaining agreements will now be a question for Mendez, who sits in Atlantic City.
The firefighters union had argued that the state was resorting to "delay and intimidation" to avoid a date in state court that could block it from unilaterally imposing contract changes.
International Association of Fire Fighters Local 198 has challenged the state's authority under the Atlantic City rescue and takeover law.
State overseer Jeffrey Chiesa, whose law firm is also defending the state in the lawsuit filed by the firefighters, wants to lay off the 100 firefighters, impose a 24-hour workday and expanded workweek, and institute other cuts in benefits and pay, which the union has called "draconian."
The proposed schedule - one 24-hour day followed by two days off - is common in fire departments, though it has been found to limit flexibility in staffing peak times. Atlantic City firefighters currently work two 10-hour day shifts, followed by two 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
The state has set Feb. 19 as the date for the changes to the contract, and September, when a federal SAFER grant ends, for the layoffs, which would cut the department staff nearly in half.
The union has cited figures that show the resort has twice the number of fires per capita than other cities its size. The New Jersey Fire Safety Commission has urged further study of the impact of the cuts before they are implemented.
The firefighters say the state's plans violate the New Jersey Constitution, and civil service and other laws. The state said those were federal claims.
In a brief filed Thursday, the union urged Bumb not to let the state "abuse the court system in order to frustrate plaintiffs’ ability to challenge the defendants’ unlawful actions."