SALT LAKE CITY — The employment status of city employees can, in some ways, be dictated by their job description, the Utah Court of Appeals has ruled.
The decision came in the case of Daniel Pearson, a former assistant South Jordan police chief, who appealed his 2007 termination. Pearson said he did not know he was considered an "at-will" employee who could be terminated "at any time, with or without cause or explanation” until days before his termination, according to a ruling written by Utah Court of Appeals Judge Carolyn McHugh.
Whether or not he could be terminated came down to the interpretation of a single word.
Pearson, who had held the position of assistant police chief since 2002, could not appeal the termination to the City’s Employee Appeals Board as an at-will employee, so he instead challenged the classification. Once the board upheld the termination, he turned to the courts. He went directly to the Utah Court of Appeals before being told he had to pursue the case in 3rd District Court.
"Pearson filed a motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether state law allowed the city to classify an 'assistant police chief' as an at‐will employee," McHugh wrote.
Third District Judge Kate Toomey sided with Pearson and found that because his title did not include the word "deputy," state law did not classify Pearson as an "at-will" employee. South Jordan challenged the ruling, though, citing state code that stated that an assistant police chief does not require classification as a "merit employee."
They also questioned Toomey's application of the statute, as it changed between the time Pearson was hired and fired.
"The city argues that the trial court erred in its interpretation of the 2007 version of the code because 'deputy' should be read to mean 'second‐in‐command.'" McHugh wrote. "South Jordan asserts that the statute does not require a municipality to use the precise title listed so long as the employee it treats as at‐will performs the same functions as would a person described by one of the enumerated titles."
South Jordan reasoned that Pearson met the definition of a deputy because he could act in behalf of the police chief as needed and, therefore, held sufficient weight to be considered an "at-will" employee who could be fired with or without cause. The Utah Court of Appeals agreed.
"Despite his title, Pearson had the power to act in place of the police chief and often did so," McHugh said. "Therefore, we conclude that Pearson’s duties were equivalent to those of a deputy."
Ultimately, McHugh determined that the code is ambiguous. Still, the court noted that it means "municipalities are not bound to provide these procedural protections to 'the most senior management positions'" because cities should be able implement new administrations once elected. In the inverse, it protects other employees from the "threat of massive turnover of city employment with each change of municipal administration.”
Beyond what is required under state code, how much protection cities want to offer their employees at various levels is left to their discretion, McHugh said.
Greg Skordas, Pearson's attorney, called the case a frustrating one. He said his client left a prestigious post in Midvale to take the job in South Jordan with the understanding that he would have a career with the city. Instead, he was terminated without cause.
"We tried to argue he should have had some protection or some status and the Court of Appeals didn't agree with us," Skordas said. "It's incredibly disappointing."
He said the case was fairly unique, but may cause municipalities to be more precise in how they classify employees in the future. It should also put potential employees on notice about how their job description could impact their futures, he said.
Pearson has yet to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Utah Supreme Court.