Washington Firefighters Victorious In Retaliation Suit

Seven firefighters from Pullman, Washington have been awarded $1 million in damages in a mind-boggling case worthy of a novel, if not a movie. The case included allegations of a workplace affair, vindictive retaliation, sexual harassment, an officer asking subordinates to provide naked photos of their wives, and counter allegations of a vengeful witch hunt by city officials against union officials.

The lawsuit was brought by Captain Eric Reiber, president of Pullman Firefighters IAFF Local 1892, and six other members who claim they were wrongly disciplined for standing up for Captain Reiber. The suit alleges due process violations, First Amendment violations, conspiracy, defamation, false light privacy violations, intentional infliction of severe emotional distress (outrage), and a state law retaliation claim.

Captain Reiber alleges that one of his subordinates, a female, was having an affair with a married firefighter and that the relationship was creating turmoil in the workplace. When he reported the affair, the pair fabricated allegations of misconduct by Captain Reiber. The fire chief and the city allegedly seized on the allegations as an opportunity to weaken the union’s bargaining position and retaliate against Captain Reiber for his past union activities.

The 28 page complaint can be downloaded here – in two parts. It is a very interesting read.

Part I  Reiber v Pullman -1.pl

Part 2  Reiber v Pullman -2.pl

Between the allegations and counter allegations, we will never know where the truth lies. However, the case points out the importance of conducting a thorough and impartial investigation when firefighters are accused of misconduct.

Among the mistakes made by the Pullman Fire Department in investigating the allegations and imposing discipline – at least according to the complaint:

  • The fire chief instructed a member to prepare a written statement implicating Captain Reiber. When it did not provide “sufficiently negative” information, the chief directed the member to redo the statement incorporating negative comments the chief supplied.
  • The fire chief and the city’s investigator developed a list of “highly inflammatory and suggestive” questions that were given to a large number of employees about the Captain Reiber “making sexual comments and leering overtures to women”. The questions together with his suspension created the impression “that City officials already held evidence of serious wrongdoing”. One question in particular "Have you or anyone you know ever been requested to provide Captain Eric Reiber with sexually suggestive photos?" allegedly defamed Captain Reiber. The questioning of the employees coincided with contentious contract negotiations.
  • When Captain Reiber’s accusers made their claims the investigators did not require them “to provide any specifics as to what was said, or when” and the city “exercised no diligence whatsoever in ascertaining the context or assessing the truthfulness of these charges. Their failure to properly investigate was willful and malicious.’
  • At Captain Reiber’s disciplinary hearing on the original charges the city “refused to allow testimony from the many Local 1892 members present and announced that they would accept only written submissions in support of Reiber.”
  • Following the hearing the city sent the union a letter threatening “members with discipline should they question the allegations” by submitting written statements in support of Captain Reiber’s version of the events.
  • During the grievance arbitration that followed Captain Reiber’s demotion and discipline it was disclosed that the city “willfully withheld … a document seminal to the investigation …. The City's willful concealment of evidence constitute[d a] deprivation of Reiber's due process rights”
  • After disciplining Captain Reiber for his original alleged misconduct, the city then took disciplinary action against him and six firefighters who submitted written statements on his behalf alleging that Captain Reiber’s defense – which contradicted the allegations of his accusers – constituted unlawful retaliation against the accusers.

The six day jury trial in US District Court ended with a verdict in favor of Captain Reiber for $325,800 and $135,000 each to Rudy Fisher, Christopher Volk, John Gollnick, Jason Wilkins and Christopher Wehrung. The jury delivered the verdict on April 2, 2013.

The city of Pullman and the estate of Fire Chief Pat Wilkins were held liable. Chief Wilkins passed away last year while the case was pending. Other city officials, including the city’s HR director who served as the primary investigator, were not held personally liable.

For those who have been through the Fire Department Administrative Investigations and Enforcing Discipline Program, this case is certainly one to study for your ongoing professional development. Many of the best practices we discuss in class were not followed and the consequences are evident in the verdict.

More on the story.

 

About Curt Varone

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.
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