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In a case of first impression, the 1st Court of Appeals recently held that Houston firefighters and police officers have the same right to appeal civil service commission decisions to a district court as their counterparts in other cities. At issue in Watts, et al. v. City of Houston and the Firemen’s and Police Officers Civil Service Commission of Houston is the meaning of the term “final” in Texas Local Government Code � 143.131(c). The city argued in its brief to the 1st Court that language in � 143.131(c) — specifying that a decision by the civil service commission regarding a grievance is “final” — bars firefighters or police officers whose grievances are governed by that provision from appealing to a district court. According to the 1st Court’s June 5 opinion, Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code was revised, effective Sept. 1, 1987, to add provisions applicable only to Houston. The subchapter G provisions establish a four-step grievance resolution procedure that a firefighter or police officer may use to challenge certain department decisions — including reprimands, transfers, job performance reviews or job assignments. The final step in the process is the commission’s review of the transcript of the administrative hearing on a grievance, the opinion said. The 1st Court wrote that Russell Watts and four other entry-level firefighters filed grievances alleging that they were owed additional pay because the city transferred them to the dispatch division, where they worked as “call-takers” and performed duties that previously had been performed only by junior alarm dispatchers. According to the opinion, the junior alarm dispatchers, who are classified and paid at the rank of captain — two classifications above the entry-level firefighter class — were assigned to supervise the new firefighters. After exhausting the grievance process, the firefighters appealed the civil service commission’s decision denying them additional pay to a district court. The 61st District Court granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, affirming the commission’s decision that the firefighters weren’t entitled to additional pay. When the firefighters appealed to the 1st Court, the city contended that neither the district court nor the Houston appeals court has jurisdiction in the case because the commission’s decision is final. NOT LEGISLATORS’ INTENT Pointing to other provisions in the Local Government Code, the 1st Court said the Legislature never intended to cut off the rights of Houston firefighters and police officers for a district court review. According to the court’s opinion, the opening section of subchapter G specifies that the provisions of subchapters A-F, which are applicable to smaller cities, apply unless otherwise provided. Section 143.131 specifies that an appeal may be filed with a district court within 10 days of the date of the final commission decision. Because subchapter G contains no express prohibition against an appeal to district court, � 143.015 applies, the 1st Court wrote. In its opinion, the Houston appeals court said it’s persuaded that the word “final” in � 143.131(c) means a decision is final in the administrative process. “Interpreting the word ‘final’ in Section 143.131(c) as ‘unappealable’ rather than as ‘final for purposes of appeal’ would lead to an unreasonable and unjust result, which we should not endorse,” Justice Evelyn Keyes wrote for the court. Tim Higley, an assistant city attorney who worked on the case in the grievance process, says he’s not surprised by the 1st Court’s decision. “In some respects, it works both ways,” Higley says. “The fire department or the police department can be dissatisfied with a decision of the civil service commission, and the fire chief or police chief might want to appeal.” The 1st Court ruled in the city’s favor regarding the firefighters’ appeal. The firefighters were assigned to new duties as call takers, not junior alarm dispatchers, who have additional supervisory duties, according to the opinion. Justice Tim Taft and Justice Laura Carter Higley, who is no relation to the assistant city attorney who handled the case in the grievance process, joined Keyes in the opinion. Troy Blakeney, attorney for the firefighters’ union, says his client has not decided whether to continue the appeal. Blakeney, the principal in Houston’s Law Office of Troy Blakeney, says he’s happy the courts’ jurisdiction in these cases is “locked in for the future.” In deciding whether to appeal, Blakeney says his client will need to balance the 1st Court’s decision on the jurisdictional issue against the rest of the court’s holding in the case.

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