LINCOLN, Neb. —
In a ruling announced Friday, the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld an arbitrator’s decision that reversed the firing of Omaha Professional Fire Fighters Association president Steve LeClair by the City of Omaha.
The court said in its conclusion that it did not condone actions which led to the firing but it noted that under the terms agreed to by the City of Omaha, it had a limited role in changing the arbitrator’s decision.
“It has been very unfortunate that Steve’s position as Union president and his advocacy for Omaha fire fighters has resulted in a different set of rules being applied and prevented him from protecting Omaha Citizens,” said Todd Morehead, Vice President of Omaha Professional Fire Fighters Local 385.
The case against LeClair stems from an encounter with a black woman at an Omaha bar in November 2018 . LeClair, while off duty, shoved the woman in the back, made sexually suggestive comments, and allegedly said “white power.”
He later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault, and said he regretted that “an incident took place,” but insisted he did not hurt the woman. LeClair testified he said “What white power? and said he is “not a subscriber to racist attitudes.”
LeClair served six months probation for the misdemeanor.
The City of Omaha fired LeClair in February 2019, saying LeClair brought disgrace to the department. But the firing was reduced to a five-day suspension following an arbitration hearing. The City’s contract with the Omaha Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 385 provided LeClair with an opportunity to appeal the discipline to an independent arbitrator.
In a statement Friday, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said she was greatly disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling that gives LeClair his job back.
“The criminal acts that led to LeClair’s termination are reprehensible,” said Stothert. “Assaulting a woman of color and using a racially charged statement while doing so is inexcusable. This type of behavior is unacceptable for anyone and, even more so, for a firefighter who is supposed to protect the public.”
Stothert maintains the decision to fire LeClair was justified.
In August 2020, Douglas County District Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf rejected an appeal by the city to overturn the arbitration ruling that reinstated LeClair, calling the city’s actions “frivolous.” Retelsdorf had previously upheld the arbitration decision and ordered the City to pay the union $16,020 in attorney fees and costs, calling the appeal “unjustified.”
The Nebraska Supreme Court said it found the city’s arguments were “not frivolous, neither were they meritorious.” It reversed Retelsdorf’s order awarding the union fees and costs, but upheld the arbitration decision.
In 2019 alone, KETV NewsWatch 7 Investigates had found the city had paid a private law firm $237,78839 to pursue the case against LeClair. The city spent another $137,278 in 2020.
City legal released the fees paid so far total $418,000 and will owe LeClair $205,000 in backpay and another $67,000 to his pension.
LeClair’s lawyer said he is ready to go back to work. Fire Chief Dan Olsen sent LeClair a termination letter in April 2019.
“He’s worn out. He’s ready to go back to work and has been for a long time,” said John Corrigan.
“It is unfortunate that Omaha decision makers abandoned that focus and instead wasted valuable tax-payer money on unnecessary litigation,” said Morehead in the union statement.
Corrigan has maintained Stothert has had a personal vendetta with LeClair.
“Had it not been Steve, almost none of this effort and money would have been expended,” Corrigan said. “He paid a price for this that was greater than anybody else on the fire department that engaged in off duty conduct.”
LeClair has been an Omaha fire fighter since 2002.