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State Supreme Court Ruling On Madison’s Pro-Golfers

June 25, 2017

Last week on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal  a story appeared that made me aware (again) of how long it takes for the legal process to play out.  On Thursday four golf professionals learned they can now sue the city of Madison over claims their contracts with the city were terminated in 2012 without good cause.

There was a great deal of conversation about the matter when the city council allowed the professionals to be axed for budgetary reasons.  Some lauded the move as necessary, others argued the move was short-sighted and sure to be mired in legal action.

One can claim there were fiscal reasons that prompted the move, but as the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 5-2  there was clearly plenty of reasons to justify why the four men needed to mount a legal challenge.  What happened was nothing short of what I suspect every lawyer wants to have happen in a legal career.  Pursue a case that ends in establishing a new precedent.  Which is what took place.

The court ruled Madison is subject to the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law, which governs contractual obligations between those who sell goods or services and those who benefit from the sales, and rejected the city’s assertion it was protected from such lawsuits under governmental immunity.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Annette Ziegler, concluded that the golf pros’ contracts were “dealerships” under the law, and as such could only be terminated for cause. The city ended the contracts in 2012 and replaced the four longtime pros with one golf pro, some assistant golf pros and unionized concession workers as a cost-cutting move.

There are of course some in the city–perhaps even many–who disagree with the ruling.

In a political sense Mayor Paul Soglin is correct to label the broad ruling a “classic example of right-wing hypocrisy.”  After all the conservative members of the court who like to tout a rigid way of doing their work on the bench when it suits them did alter the legislative intent of the law to come to a ruling as it pertains to this case.  But to be fair to the conservatives they also just used the language that is now part of legal dictionaries.  The ruling notes the law’s definition of a “person” includes a corporation, and the city is a “municipal corporation.”

As one who thinks laws are always demanding to be viewed and altered to stay in sync with the times and needs of society allows me to be comfortable with this ruling.   I suspect many people at large  agree with that foundation when it comes to laws and our courts.

While I have tremendous regard for Justice Shirley Abrahamson, who strongly dissented in the case, the fact was the four professional golfers and their attorneys found a legal rock to stand on and aggressively demonstrated to a court the power and correctness of their positions.

Expanding the breadth of a law to cover the men and thus allow for their suit may rattle some inside local government.  But perhaps this will also alert those who at times make short-sighted decisions–for some fiscal reason–to stop and think about the ramifications of such actions.  After all, at the time this issue was making headlines in 2012, there were those who warned of the consequences.

The court’s action last week sends the lawsuit back to Dane County Circuit Court.  At one point the pros were seeking $1.8 million in compensation.

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