Frivolous Lawsuits: When Does It End?

After reviewing and correcting a 256-page deposition transcript, I just have to shout out for the forgotten "victims" in the legal process. When I raised my right hand and took the oath of office as fire and EMS chief, I knew that a tremendous amount of responsibility would follow. I was aware and prepared for long days, short nights and a lot physical and mental stress. However, I didn't realize the overwhelming impact that frivolous lawsuits would have on me, the organization and the city government.

The related legal work effort is tremendous, from finding and gathering documents to depositions to a rare trial, there has to be a better way for the American fire-rescue service to do a better job in this out-of-control process. This brief column will outline one powerful way that relief could be provided or at the very least greatly reduce this incredible waste of time, energy and money.

Let me open by saying that I firmly believe in the American justice system. Further, there are many cases where a government or a supervisor has illegally, immorally and improperly treated subordinate employees. In fact, there are cases where employees were treated so wrongly that the court system offered significant relief to those harmed. However, a growing number of frivolous, unwarranted and needless lawsuits are being filed in the fire-rescue service. Let me start by discussing a case in point that I am personally aware of and can address.

Case Study

A portion of the above-mentioned transcript review was a line of questioning about why a battalion chief was demoted to the rank of captain. The interrogatory question that proceeded the deposition hearing demanded a detailed explanation and rationale as to how and why such punitive action was taken against the officer (in this column, people and departments will remain nameless for obvious reasons). When I read demands like this one, I must admit my stomach tends to do a flip flop or two. However, after reading the demand and reflecting back to the facts of the situation, my anxiety turns to disappointment.

The real story reveals that after completing four years of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and completing a three-week Harvard University summer course (perhaps the greatest amount of money and time the city had invested in an employee to prepare for an administrative position within the fire-rescue department), a battalion chief was reassigned to manage a support-services function; specifically, the job duties and responsibilities required the command officer to oversee all of the real property (fire stations) to include fire-rescue apparatus management.

Without question, this is one of the most important and mission-critical positions in the department and one that this person was using tens of thousands of city training dollars to prepare to handle. As you might have guessed, this highly important position required the incumbent to be assigned to day work, typically working five eight-hour days per week. The much-sought-after shift of eight to nine 24-hour shifts per month would become a thing of the past for this very well administratively trained command officer.

My guess is that everyone reading this knows what happened next. The former chief officer requested, in writing, a reduction in rank to captain that included a plea to stay on the most-valued shift schedule. One would think that the city attorneys could resolve this miscarriage of justice (a boldfaced lie), but that would not to be the case. This fabricated complaint required a detailed written response; followed up with being "prepared" to answer verbal questions about this "mandated action" (actually voluntarily requested) demotion in rank.

What Can Be Done?

At a recent seminar, I was delighted to learn about the practice of a medical group in Northern California. I had a discussion with the spouse of one of principals of a legal protection and representation team that these concerned doctors use. A group of about 100 doctors pay an annual fee of about $1,000 each to be zealously represented in frivolous lawsuits. If a doctor does engage in a bad/poor behavior, let's say that he or she sews a lap sponge inside a patient, this "defense" process cannot be used or accessed. However, for example, if a nurse pleads for a demotion from various nursing duties (sound familiar) with documentation and submits legal requests asking for the reasoning why the nurse was demoted, then the legal defense system kicks into "high gear," going after the fibbing attackers. After dealing with about a dozen frivolous lawsuits and claims, the process described was music to my ears!

The gentleman with the doctor's defense system described the system's process and service, using the well-publicized fraud case and the now-infamous case involving a human finger in a bowl of chili. The restaurant's "stock in trade" (corporate monetary value) and the public trust to deliver safe and clean food were on the line. Nothing short of a major disaster for the company was being built around a fabricated story designed to do little more than extort money from a "deep-pocket company." When the restaurant's legal team entered the picture, the day was saved. The truth surfaced as arrests and court convictions soon followed for the tellers of such a tale.

A Practical Approach

The restaurant's legal team took quick and overwhelming counteractions. Just think, if the average fire chief had millions of dollars, we could have the same great system. Perhaps the International Association of Fire Chiefs or a similar professional group needs to grab this idea and run with it to the finish line. I would gladly pay $1,000 a year to make the lawsuit-happy snivelers think twice before they file the next silly action against a fire chief simply doing his or her job. Everyone in our country has the right to pursue happiness, not just the bellyaching few, so that's why this idea is so appealing to me.

Please accept my challenge to respond to this column with your input. Who knows, maybe there is an even better way to attack this ever-growing group of disingenuous folks.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.