Fire Law Review: Recent Need-to-Know Cases & Decisions

By Curt Varone 

Our fire law review focuses on some of the many major fire law headlines between Oct. 1, 2017 and Dec. 31, 2017. Parsed by topic, you can see the trends in the issues, mistakes ad inappropriate behavior affecting fire departments and firefighters nationwide. 

Sexual Harassment

Florida

Captain Amanda Vomero with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue filed suit accusing her supervisors of sexual harassment and retaliation. Vomero filed a two-count complaint in Palm Beach County Circuit Court that included a litany of allegations of inappropriate and vulgar comments from Division Chief Chris Hoch and, to a lesser extent, other officers. The allegations were initially reported by Vomero’s colleague, who subsequently requested an investigation. Thereafter, Vomero claims she was retaliated against. Read More

The following week reporters for WPTV Channel 5 in West Palm Beach aired an investigative report into other lawsuits alleging sexual harassment and retaliation within Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. Read More 

Oregon

A junior firefighter filed a $3.5 million lawsuit against the Monroe Rural Fire Protection District claiming to have been sexually assaulted by the firefighter overseeing the junior program. The girl, identified in Benton County Circuit Court filings as Donna Doe, alleges firefighter Carlos Garcia sexually abused her starting when she was 14. Criminal charges have not been filed against Garcia. Read More 

Women’s Rights

In a scathing 49-page decision, the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission reversed the demotion of the fire department’s first female chief officer, and in the process raised serious questions over whether the department’s leadership targeted her. The ruling orders the Salt Lake City Fire Department to reinstate Chief Martha Ellis as a Battalion Chief and give her full back pay and seniority. Read More 

Racial Discrimination, Improper Conduct and Retaliation

New York

Seven African American civilian employees of the FDNY filed a 59-page civil suit in federal court alleging that wide-ranging and systemic race discrimination impacts hiring, compensation and promotions in civilian and EMS jobs. The class-action complaint alleges that FDNY has a long-standing history of discriminating against African Americans going back over 100 years. Read More 

Sean Joshua, an African American volunteer firefighter in Valley Stream, is suing his former fire department in federal court, alleging race discrimination. Joshua claims that members and officers subjected him to racist comments and hostile treatment throughout his tenure with the department. He further claims ranking officers fabricated allegations of him being the subject of vehicular homicide charges in an effort to dissuade him from reapplying. Read More 

Rhode Island

The City of Providence settled a federal lawsuit filed by a Hispanic firefighter who claimed he was discriminated against. Renato Alarcon filed suit in 2015 claiming his treatment in Engine 10 was discriminatory and led to his transfer in 2013. The suit named the company’s captain, his shift lieutenant, and one of his colleagues. Alarcon settled the case for $7,500. Read More 

Michigan

In Detroit, a probationary firefighter was terminated because he brought a watermelon with a pink ribbon on it to his new firehouse as a welcome gift. The gesture offended the primarily African American firefighters at Engine 55. Robert Pattison was dismissed because he “engaged in unsatisfactory work behavior which was deemed offensive and racially insensitive to members of the Detroit Fire Department.” Read More 

First Amendment Rights

In Atlanta, former Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran received a long-awaited trial court ruling on his First Amendment claims. Chief Cochran was terminated in 2014 after he published a religious-themed book in conjunction with a leadership project he was engaged in for his church. Many, including Mayor Kasim Reed, considered the book to be offensive to the LGBT community. A quick summary:

  • The city’s requirement that employees get permission before publishing books (which Chief Cochran was accused of violating and was a basis for his discipline) violates the First Amendment as a prior restraint. Chief Cochran wins.
  • However, because the content of the book potentially opened the city to liability for hostile work environment claims, the city was justified in terminating his employment. City wins.

Read More 

Wrongful Death

In a 5 to 1 decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that a wrongful death suit against the Bridgeport Fire Department should proceed to trial because the city’s failure to conduct fire code inspections may constitute recklessness. The case arose out of the Nov. 13, 2009, fire in the PT Barnum Apartments that claimed the lives of Tiana Black and her three children. The suit attributed the deaths to the city’s failure to conduct annual inspections mandated by state law. The city has immunity protection from liability for negligence claims, but not from reckless conduct. Read More 

Social Media

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the request of former Howard County (MD) Battalion Chief Kevin Buker to consider an appeal of his termination in 2013. Chief Buker was fired following a series of Facebook posts that began over the gun-control debate. Both the trial court and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the termination, concluding that the county’s interests in managing its workplace outweighed Chief Buker’s right to free speech based on the Pickering Balance Test. Read More 

Massachusetts

A veteran Boston firefighter was suspended over a social media post depicting a black man carrying a decapitated head of a white man. Octavius Rowe, a 15-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department, was placed on paid administrative leave on Oct. 2, 2017, after he shared a cartoon image titled “Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion.” Read More 

Misconduct

Pennsylvania

West Lebanon Township suspended and decertified one of its volunteer fire companies after a majority of the members who responded to a run on Dec. 14, 2017, were under the influence of alcohol. The Speedwell Fire Company was disciplined within a week of the incident after the township received a complaint and directed the police to investigate. According to Lebanon Daily News, seven of the nine members who responded to a small fire at Pete’s Pizza had been drinking. No criminal charges were filed, but the investigation is continuing. Another area fire company was assigned to cover for the Speedwell Fire Company. Read More 

South Carolina

The fire chief and the city administrator of the City of Marion have been indicted for knowingly exposing firefighters and members of the public to asbestos in a fire department building. Fire Chief Ralph Walton Cooper III and city administrator Alan Thomas Ammons were indicted on Nov. 2, 2017, by a Marion County Grand Jury on three counts: misconduct in office, violation of the South Carolina Pollution Control Act, and conspiracy to violate the South Carolina Pollution Control Act. They reportedly ordered firefighters to remove asbestos tiles and place them in a dumpster despite knowing the tiles contained asbestos. Read More 

Virginia

Virginia State Police are investigating an alleged gang rape involving firefighters of the Strasburg Volunteer Fire Department last April. The allegations involved a 17-year-old female who was reportedly “highly intoxicated” and five men ages 20 to 36. It is reported that videos of the encounter were shared on the internet. Read More 

Pennsylvania

The two most common criminal offenses plaguing the volunteer fire service involve embezzlement of funds from the volunteer organization and arson. While both crimes are unfortunately all too common, a Pennsylvania firefighter somehow managed to combine them both. William B. Verbeck, 63, is heading to prison for setting a fire to cover up his theft of fire company raffle proceeds. Verbeck was sentenced to serve up to a year in prison for setting his pickup truck on fire on Aug. 23, 2016. At the time, Verbeck was delivering “Cash Bash” raffle tickets and cash to the Morris Township Fire Company. He claimed the tickets and the money were destroyed in the fire. Read More 

FLSA Rights

Five employees of a volunteer fire department filed suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act, claiming they were improperly classified as partially exempt 7k firefighters instead of being paid overtime after 40 hours per week. The suit named the Exeter Township Volunteer Fire Department and alleges that prior to Jan. 1, 2017, the employees only received overtime after they worked 212 hours in a 28-day period. According to the claims, the fire department does not qualify as a public agency because it is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and thus is ineligible use the 7k exemption. Read More 

Lexipol’s Fire Policy Manual and Daily Training Bulletin Service provides essential policies to enhance the safety of firefighters in all areas of department operations. Contact us today to find out more. 

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

1 Comment

firefigter drop his pants took a dump seces in front Black firefighter

January 6, 2022 02:21 PM by Isabel Legorreta

  

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