Court says: HRA acted properly in terminating director
The Alexandria Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) acted properly in terminating its director, Judi Rost, in March of 2004.
That decision from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, filed last month in St. Paul, reverses a ruling the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) made July 23, 2007.
The BMS had determined that Rost did nothing wrong and that the HRA board "leapt to a hasty conclusion" by denying Rost a fair hearing of the disciplinary action.
The board asked for Rost's resignation after an HRA employee accused her of taking prescription medicine left behind by a resident who had moved out of the HRA's Viking Towers apartments.
The BMS arbitrator determined that Rost didn't "steal" the medication and that she hadn't violated any HRA procedures and regulations.
The BMS had ordered the HRA to reinstate Rost as director with back pay, lost benefits and out-of-pocket expenses.
The HRA board filed an appeal, however, and the court agreed with a key point of the HRA's argument - that the BMS did not have the authority to conduct a review of the HRA's decision to terminate Rost because she did not have terms and conditions of employment that protected her from being fired.
In effect, the court said that Rost was an employee who could be fired at any time for any reason.
"She [Rost] does not have an enforceable contractual right to not be terminated except for cause," the appeals court ruling states. "Thus, the BMS-approved arbitrator erred by ruling that the HRA's termination of Rost is subject to independent review by the commissioner of the BMS."
Colleen Thompson, a long-time member of the HRA board, said the court's reversal was "absolutely the right ruling."
"It kind of relieved a lot of fog that has been hanging over the housing authority not knowing exactly which way things were going to fall," Thompson said.
"We knew we were in the right all along when this unfortunate incident happened," she added.
The court's decision will allow the HRA staff to move forward with all of its projects, Thompson said.
When contacted by the newspaper, Rost said she was disappointed with the court's ruling and the fact that the decision had nothing to do with the reason for her termination, which she believes was unjustified and unfairly carried out.
"All I wanted was my name cleared," Rost said in an e-mail statement to the newspaper. "However, I felt I did get that accomplished with the original BMS arbitrator's decision. It's too bad the appeals court didn't stick to the original reason why we initiated the lawsuit."
Rost was also disappointed with the appeals court process.
"My attorney and the BMS attorney were not given fair time to present their case," she said. "They had a total of 10 minutes each. The judges consistently interrupted them and asked them to explain previous cases and did not allow them, in the brief time they had, to speak on my behalf."
Rost added that she's grateful for the support of others within the community. "People have come up to me on the street and wished me good luck and offered their support," she said. "That means a lot especially when you are fighting to right a wrong."
Rost said that she and her attorney, Rick Wylie, are discussing her next step. When contacted by the newspaper, Wylie said that an appeal at this point is not a realistic option.
Wylie described the court's decision as unfair.
"This is another extreme interpretation of the employment at-will doctrine that resulted in a serious injustice," Wylie said. "Even though an arbitrator determined that the accusations against my client did not justify termination, there was nothing she could do about it and that seems unfair."
Patricia Beety, the attorney for the HRA, said the court's decision affirms the HRA's actions in terminating Rost more than four and a half years ago for reasons they believed were justified.
"Obviously, my client, the HRA board, is happy with the result," she said. "It's been quite a long time moving through the courts, leaving uncertainty for both parties...It's unfortunate that it took so long but we're glad that it's finally been decided and it's over."
ABOUT THE HRA
The Alexandria HRA's mission is to ensure safe, decent and affordable housing for community members. It manages public housing units in the city and provides other programs, such as affordable single-family home construction and development. It also conducts rental inspections for the city and administers a variety of Minnesota housing finance programs.
It is governed by a five-member board appointed by the Alexandria City Council. It is authorized, through the city, to impose a tax levy to help pay for its programs, salaries and administrative expenses.