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Last month, I took a look at the three most important court decisions that affected the U.S. fire service in 2011. This month, I focus on what I consider the year’s most interesting and bizarre legal stories. For me, the important cases are those that set or affirm important precedents that impact hundreds if not thousands of firefighters, while the interesting cases are those that capture our attention and the bizarre cases – well, let’s just say “you can’t make this stuff up!”
The most interesting
To me, these are the most interesting cases from 2011:
Hawley v. Cyphers was a civil action brought by a paralyzed firefighter from the Warrior Run Area Fire Department in Pennsylvania against the arsonist who set the fire where his injuries occurred. Wayne E. Hawley Jr., 54, was paralyzed in 2007 while battling a fire that was set by a former firefighter, Chester A. Cyphers, 55. Cyphers is believed to have set as many as 60 fires between 2004 and 2008.
The case was tried before Judge Charles H. Saylor, who awarded $7.54 million to Hawley and $2.5 million to his wife. As important as the verdict was, it will remain a largely symbolic victory: Cyphers has no assets from which the judgment can be paid.
The second case, Carroll v. City of Mount Vernon, was a U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a reverse-discrimination case brought by a white firefighter from Mount Vernon, NY. Joseph Carroll took a lieutenant’s exam in 2004 and ranked ninth on the list. The list was good for two years, and due to expire in 2006. Development of a new promotional list was delayed, so the expiration date of the 2004 list was extended to July 19, 2007.
By 2007, Carroll ranked second on the lieutenant’s list. A new test was finally administered on March 24, 2007, to replace the old list. Carroll’s new rank on the list was 16th. As the expiration deadline for the 2004 list approached in July 2007, there were two lieutenant vacancies that needed to be filled. Carroll and another white firefighter, Justin Chase, were under consideration and were granted interviews with the mayor. The Vulcan Society intervened and contended that the extension of the old list from 2006 to 2007 violated a consent decree that the city agreed to. The city opted to move the effective date of new list up to July 9, 2007, and let the deadline pass without making the promotions. That decision prompted Carroll’s suit alleging reverse discrimination.
The trial court ruled against Carroll in 2010, finding he could not prove that the city’s motivation was race-based. On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed, concluding that Carroll “offered no evidence that the city’s decision to accelerate the effective date of the 2007 list was made after the Vulcan Society threatened to bring litigation if the 2004 list were used…Indeed, the only reference in the record to acceleration of the effective date of the 2007 list…suggests that the decision to accelerate it from July 19 to July 9 or 10 was made before the Vulcan Society threatened litigation.”
The third case, a criminal case out of Velarde, NM, arguably could qualify under the bizarre category. On March 29, 2011, Fire Chief Eddie Velarde was the incident commander at a sizeable wildland fire. Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Adam Archuleta responded to the scene and claims that Velarde was “creating general hysteria at the scene that was doing more harm than good.” He then arrested Velarde on charges of disorderly conduct.
The parties disagreed on the status of the fire at the time of the arrest. Archuleta claimed that the fire was out, and crews were only on scene another 10 minutes following the arrest. Velarde disputed that, claiming he was arrested, taken to the sheriff’s office, booked, released and returned to the scene while crews were still there.