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Lawsuit over Atlantic City firefighters moves to federal court, opening the door for cuts

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

A lawsuit filed by the Atlantic City Fire Department in state court over proposed budget cuts has been moved to federal court, opening the door for major changes to the department.

The case was moved to federal court Thursday, the same day state court Judge Julio Mendez temporarily blocked state officials’ cost-cutting plan for the fire department, which included changes to union contracts and layoffs.

The cost-cutting plan is part of the state-run takeover of Atlantic City, which took effect in November, aimed at slashing the resort town’s budget and reducing its debt.

The lawsuit is the first major challenge to the takeover law. It was shifted to the District Court in Camden on Thursday through a legal process called “removal,” which allows the defendant of a state lawsuit to request that the suit be moved into federal court when it pertains to questions of federal law.

Ronald Israel, an attorney for the state, claimed that the case should be put under federal jurisdiction because it deals with issues relating to the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that no new laws can break existing contracts.

Attorneys for the Atlantic City Professional Firefighters Local 198, however, argued that moving the case to federal court was simply a legal maneuver meant to dodge Judge Mendez’s restraining order and slow down the lawsuit so that state officials could make their desired changes in the city.

“The defendants’ removal of this action is clearly frivolous, intended only to circumvent Judge Mendez’s temporary restraints, and to delay this litigation, resulting in devastating harm to plaintiffs and the public,” wrote Diana Nobile, an attorney for the firefighters’ union.

The union is asking District Judge Renee Marie Bumb to send the case back to state court.

The legality of the cuts was supposed to be discussed during a February 13th hearing before Judge Mendez, but state officials moved the case to federal court almost immediately, and the first hearing in that case is scheduled for March 15th.

That means the union will not have the protection of Mendez’s restraining order from February 13th until at least March 15th, unless the federal court rules on the union’s emergency motion.

Officials in the state Department of Community Affairs, charged with overseeing the city takeover, have vowed not to make any changes to the Atlantic City Fire Department — such as cutting pay and health benefits and changing the length and schedule of firefighters’ shifts — until February 19th.

The state has said it would not lay off workers until September, when a federal grant funding 85 Atlantic City firefighters runs out.

The proposed layoffs would cut 100 of the department’s 225 full-time firefighters.

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