Fire Law: 2012 Cases And Controversies

When I began to work on this review of fire service cases for 2012, my sense was that it had been a slow year compared with 2010 and 2011. In 2010, we had the landmark reverse-discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S. Ct. 2658, 2671, 174 L. Ed. 2d...


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When I began to work on this review of fire service cases for 2012, my sense was that it had been a slow year compared with 2010 and 2011. In 2010, we had the landmark reverse-discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano, 129 S. Ct. 2658, 2671, 174 L. Ed. 2d 490 (2009); in 2011, we had an important First Amendment case, Westmoreland v. Sutherland, 662 F.3d 714 (6th Cir., 2011).

While 2012 did not yield a comparable landmark ruling, it was anything but boring. In fact, the cases and controversies that developed in 2012 may provide the foundation for important new precedent in areas including the First Amendment, social media and labor relations.

Making headlines

In terms of organizing the 2012 cases into a top-three, top-five or even a top-10 listing, there are literally too many cases to do justice to what took place. Consider the following:

• In Nashville, TN, a firefighter found himself to be the victim of a blackmail plot perpetrated by a gang member whose “girlfriend” had visited the fire station on previous occasions to strip and perform sex acts. Police arranged a sting operation and caught the blackmailer. An internal fire department investigation led to discipline for several firefighters, including three members who resigned.

• In Taylor, MI, the entire city council filed suit against the mayor to force him to accept an $8 million SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant that would let the department restore 30 firefighter positions. Not to be outdone, in Grand Island, NE, the firefighters’ union filed suit against the city, seeking a court order to appoint a new fire chief.

• In New Waverly, TX, a firefighter was charged criminally for using an app on his smartphone to secretly take photos in his firehouse’s women’s bathroom.

• During an Independence Day parade in Philadelphia, PA, a volunteer firefighter aboard fire truck gestured with his middle finger to a cameraman zooming for a close-up. The incident was broadcast live on WPVI-TV/6ABC and rebroadcast on CNN. The member was suspended and the department apologized.

• In Pittsburgh, PA, a fire captain working his last shift gave a TV interview in which he criticized the city’s public works department. When the TV station ran a humorous story that included the captain’s remarks, the public safety commissioner tried to revoke the captain’s retirement and discipline him for speaking to the media while on duty without permission. The captain more or less said, too late, I’m retired. When the city later withheld the captain’s severance check, he sued, alleging it was in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights.

• In Harford County, MD, a firefighter complained on Facebook that firefighters did not get the same discount at a restaurant as police and military. His post was quickly followed by several others that suggested a fire ought to be set and the fire department’s response delayed. Nine firefighters were disciplined, including one who was terminated.

• In Durham, NC, a firefighter was arrested in connection with armed robberies committed by a perpetrator known as the “Green Goblin robber” because he wore a green mask.

• The mayor of Scranton, PA, ordered the unilateral reduction in pay for all fire personnel down to minimum wage to address a financial crisis. The firefighters’ union sued, obtaining a restraining order against the mayor, which he initially ignored. On the eve of being found in contempt of court, the mayor agreed to a settlement that restored the wages.

• In Cleveland, OH, a firefighter accused of having only worked 11 shifts in a year and paying co-workers to cover some 4,336 hours over two years, pleaded guilty to soliciting/receiving improper compensation and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

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