Nebraska court upholds reinstatement of Omaha firefighter

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday largely upheld an arbitrator’s decision that an Omaha fire union leader should have been suspended, rather than fired, for his actions during an encounter with a Black woman at a bar in 2018.

The high court mostly agreed with a district court judge, who refused to vacate the arbitrator’s decision in the case of Steve LeClair, president of the Omaha firefighters union.

LeClair was fired after a Black woman alleged he made sexually suggestive comments to her at Tiger Tom’s Pub in Omaha in November 2018, elbowed her in the back and muttered the phrase “white power.”

LeClair was charged with assault and battery and disorderly conduct, and later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor assault charge. He disputed the woman’s characterization of his comments, contending that he said, “what white power?” while trying to make a negative comment about white nationalist groups that he had been discussing with his colleagues earlier that night. He denied making sexual advances toward her.

 

An arbitrator later determined that the decision to fire LeClair was too extreme, given his otherwise clean work record, service to the city and more lenient punishments imposed on other city employees. LeClair also argued that the firing was motivated by his prior political disputes with Omaha’s Republican mayor, Jean Stothert.

The city appealed the arbitrator’s decision, but a Douglas County district judge upheld it and ordered the city to pay the fire union’s legal fees for what she called a “frivolous” appeal.

The state Supreme Court affirmed the judge’s decision but reversed her order that the city pay the union’s legal costs, saying the case was meritless but not frivolous.

“While we do not minimize or condone the acts LeClair admitted to, much less those he was accused of, all we are empowered to do is determine whether one of the narrow grounds on which courts may vacate arbitration awards applies,” Justice Jonathan Papik wrote in the opinion.

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