Supreme Court: Reinstate officer Matt Tubaugh

In a reversal of a lower court’s decision, the Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled the City of Livingston must reinstate fired police officer Matthew Tubaugh.

The Supreme Court sided with an arbitrator who determined in 2013 that while the city had just cause to discipline Tubaugh, the proper action would have been a three-month suspension without pay, not termination, according to the decision. 

The arbitrator was brought in after Tubaugh appealed his Oct. 2012 firing through the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the Montana Public Employees Association. A lawyer for the MPEA has been handling Tubaugh’s case.

The city appealed the arbitrator’s award in Park County’s Sixth Judicial District Court, and in January 2014 Judge Brenda Gilbert sided with the city, issuing an order to vacate the arbitrator’s award.

But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court found that Gilbert incorrectly ruled the arbitrator exceeded her powers by ordering Tubaugh should have been progressively disciplined and that the city should reinstate him. 

“The District Court found error in the Arbitrator’s interpretation of the (Collective Bargaining Agreement),” the ruling reads. “A court may not overturn an arbitrator’s decision, however, ‘simply because the court believes its own interpretation of the contract would be the better one.’”

Gilbert argued that the arbitrator’s award violated the safety of fellow officers and the public by reinstating Tubaugh. 

City Attorney Bruce Becker said the city had just received the Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday morning and hasn’t made a decision regarding how Tubaugh might be reinstated. Becker said “there could be a discussion about some sort of settlement as opposed to him coming back, but he’d have to be agreeable to that.”

Becker said in May that reinstating Tubaugh could leave the city open to lawsuits.

Tubaugh said he was happy with the ruling and hoped to get back his dog, Bobi, the trained police canine he worked with, in addition to getting back pay. He said he’s continued to apply for police officer positions in other departments in the area, but has been unable to get employment as a police officer elsewhere. He said he needed the money, but wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted his job in Livingston back.

“I like this little town,” he said. “My kids are here, and I put my heart and soul into this little town. Now that things worked out, I want to see it through.” 

The arbitrator noted the fitness for duty evaluation given to Tubaugh in 2012 should not have replaced corrective and progressive discipline and ordered the city expunge the evaluation from Tubaugh’s record. That evaluation found that he had a personality disorder. The Supreme Court decision confirmed that the evaluation should be expunged. 

In a separate proceeding, the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating whether the city discriminated against Tubaugh during his firing because of his military service. Tubaugh was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and was awarded the Bronze Star. He has previously said that he hasn’t been formally evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Natalie Storey may be reached at nstorey@livent.net.