A federal judge has ordered Quincy to pay over $80,000 in legal fees to a non-union construction group in a dispute over the city’s employment practices.
City officials said they are waiting for the final decision to be written before appealing the ruling, which will not only mandate payment of the legal costs but will also abolish the city’s apprenticeship requirements.
“We had anticipated this outcome and appealing it,” said City Solicitor Jim Timmins. “…This particular issue has not been decided definitively by the First Circuit Court of Appeals. We’re trying to get a decision out of that appellate body in order to bring some uniformity to the law in this region.”
Timmins said the city recognized it may be responsible for payment of some legal fees. In the decision, the city suggested a payment of approximately $20,000.
Though much is to be decided in an appeal, groups behind the lawsuit have already categorized the initial decision as a win.
“The expense of this lawsuit to the City of Quincy should be a loud and clear message to all cities and towns that when you pass ordinances that are designed to steer work to a special interest group, you face the very real risk of losing in federal court and paying for the privilege to do so," said Ronald Cogliano, President and CEO of the Alliance group, in a release.
Issues over the city’s hiring practices initially came up during the bidding process for the construction of a new Central Middle School.
A group of non-union contractors under the name Merit Construction Alliance contested the bid requirements in federal court, saying residency requirements, apprenticeship requirements, health and welfare provisions, and pension mandates were unconstitutional.
The March 2012 lawsuit echoed that of one brought up against the City of Fall River, where a federal judge had struck down similar employment criteria five months earlier.
With the threat of litigation, Quincy partially conceded to the Fall River lawsuit, doing away with health and welfare benefit requirements and pension plan requirements.
Requirements on residency and apprenticeship rules remained unenforced to allow the Central Middle School project and others to continue, yet litigation continued on both points.
After six months of discovery, Quincy also conceded that the residency requirement was unconstitutional.
Though a final judgment has not yet been entered, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel sided in favor of the Alliance on the last point in a summary judgment, and additionally struck down the apprenticeship provision.
The Alliance has since filed a motion for attorney fees, and in an Aug. 2 decision, Zobel agreed with the request.
“Cities have a strong political incentive to regulate public works contractors in ways that favor local residents—even if they may violate ERISA by doing so,” Zobel wrote in the decision. “Awarding attorneys’ fees in this case should balance that strong political incentive, and deter other cities from enacting or defending similar unlawful ordinances.”
Zobel also referenced the Fall River case, saying Quincy’s case lacked merit because a similar lawsuit had recently been decided.
Cogliano has said the group tried to negotiate with the city over the ordinances prior to going to trial, but the city refused. That the city will have to pay for that decision is validating, the group said.
"Quincy should have known it was destined to fail in court because only months before the City of Fall River had lost a very similar case,” Cogliano said in the release. “Under pressure from special interests, Quincy officials pursued the losing battle and now taxpayers will pay the price for City Hall's stubbornness."
The full settlement costs as well as residency requirements will both be contested, Timmins said. The city is waiting for final judgements to be entered and will have 30 days to appeal the ruling.
"It’s a complex legal question that will be resolved by the First Circuit," Timmins said. "And there is a lot of case law in our favor on this issue, and I'm looking forward to bringing it forward at the appellate level."
In the meantime, Timmins credited the Mayor and his administration for pushing the envelope on the issue of apprenticeship requirements where Fall River did not.
“We feel like we’re addressing an important public policy question,” he said. “It’s not a typical adversarial proceeding, where we’re against merit alliance or with them. We think there are import public policy questions to be resolved here.”