My Top Fire Law Stories for 2014

Happy New Year to all!!! Yesterday we covered the top 20 fire law stories that were of greatest interest to folks as measured on Facebook by “People Reached”. Today, I want to cover the cases that I feel are the most important, the most unusual, even the worst cases of 2014. We will also take a look at some of the trends and things to watch as we usher in 2015!!!!

Here are the ten most important rulings of 2014. They are important because they are decisions… not just someone filing a suit or the parties reaching a settlement. Most of these cases have the potential to impact many fire departments and all are worth taking the time to read.

  1. Use of Fire Department Email for Union Communications
  2. Monocular Vision Not a Per Se Barrier to Fire Service
  3. Oregon Supreme Court Rules in Important Fire Fighter Disability Case
  4. Part-Time Firefighters Allowed to Organize in Pennsylvania
  5. NC Supreme Court Rules in Chapel Hill FD Case
  6. Cal Fire Ordered to Pay Unprecedented $30 Million
  7. Ohio LODD Suit Ends in Victory for Morning Pride and Motorola
  8. NTSB Rules FAA Can Regulate Drones
  9. Connecticut Fire Department Not Liable for Arson By Volunteer
  10. First Two Guilty Pleas in Shreveport Fire Bullying Scandal

In terms of the most unusual (YCMTSU) fire law stories:

  1. SC Firefighters Facing Arson and Attempted Murder For Setting Fire Station Ablaze
  2. Ohio Chief Accuses Fire Board of Conspiracy and Racketeering
  3. Surveillance Video Fuels Criminal Charges Against Two Cleveland Firefighters
  4. YCMTSU Kansas: Drunk Driving Fire Truck
  5. Providence Firefighter Investigated for Gesture Made During Ferguson Protest
  6. Philadelphia Paramedic Instagram Draws Heat
  7. YCMTSU New Haven
  8. YCMTSU Los Angeles Assault Case Goes to Trial
  9. Its About Time: Police Officer Investigated for Arresting Firefighter
  10. Oklahoma FD Sold at Auction YCMTSU

The top 5 runners-up (as usual there was a lot of competition in the YCMTSU category):

For the category of the worst fire law ruling of 2014:

Incidentally, I am thinking about creating a “worst decision of the year” award and naming it in memory of last year’s Texas Supreme Court landmark ruling in City of Round Rock v. Rodriguez, that held that Texas firefighters who are allowed to collectively bargain do not have a right to have a union representative present when being interrogated for misconduct.

 2014 Close-Out Rant

I also wanted to mention something I have observed over the years that I refer to as “litigation clusters”… These are fire departments that appear to be mired in a morass of political gamesmanship by local officials that results in numerous grievances, administrative cases, and lawsuits. Some of these clusters appear to be driven by an anti-labor philosophy of the local officials, and some appear to be personality driven, often directed at the fire chief:

Anti-Labor:

North Kingstown, RI – where management has been raking its firefighters over the coals for several years now, and sadly the public doesn’t seem to care, or perhaps even understand the issues. Dozens of grievances, unfair labor practice charges and law suits have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees alone! These same taxpayers now face the prospect of having to pay the firefighters millions of dollars for hours they worked but were never paid for. The town increased their hours from 42 to 56 for no additional compensation without even negotiating the change as required by state law. One of the most important cases is now before RI Supreme Court, and many are speculating that the court (known to have conservative and anti-labor leanings) is struggling to find an excuse to rule in town’s favor in a way that will not fly in the face of very clear law that supports the firefighters. Stay tuned!!!

Chambersburg, PA – where a similar ideological assault on labor has been playing itself out. Again, dozens of cases as elected officials are using their positions to advance a political battle that was lost at the state house when firefighters won the right to organize… and in the end it will be the taxpayers (not the elected officials) who will have to foot the bill. In Chambersburg, the IAFF president was disciplined and the vice-president terminated for asking other IAFF members not to volunteer in their community. The local officials claim that the union officials were encouraging a prohibited “secondary boycott”. Once again… stay tuned!!!

Lockport, NY – ditto on a protracted battle of wills between an anti-labor administration and an IAFF local.

 

Anti-Chief:

These are cases where local elected officials have made a political decision to get rid of a fire chief despite having no legal basis to do so: political bullying at it’s worst!

West Licking Joint Fire DistrictOhio Chief Accuses Fire Board of Conspiracy and Racketeering

New Durham, NHNH Chief Fired on TV Files Suit (although not a litigation cluster in terms of a large number of law suits, this case certainly is in line with the others in that we see elected officials attempting to use their positions to advance their own agenda (political or personal) at taxpayer expense in a way that ignores settled law. I include it because this seems to be the kind of situation that – if left unchecked – will turn into a litigation cluster because elected officials apparently feel they can use the power of their position without consequence.

 

What to watch in 2015:

Going forward into 2015, there are literally too many important fire law cases to mention, but my top five are:

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy, safe and prosperous New Year!!!

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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