RI Firefighter Ordered Reinstated – Town Manager’s Appointment Illegal

A Superior Court judge has ordered the Town of East Greenwich to reinstate the brother of an IAFF union president ruling that his firing was illegal. Firefighter James Perry was fired by newly appointed town manager Gail Corrigan on August 19, 2017, days before his one-year probationary period was supposed to end.

Perry, the brother of the East Greenwich Firefighters IAFF Local 3328 president William Perry, was fired allegedly for lying on his employment application about his qualifications. Perry and Local 3328 sued the town claiming his termination was retaliation for a complaint Bill Perry filed against Town Council President Sue Cienki and for his related union activities.

On June 12, 2017 at a meeting with former Town Manager Tom Coyle, Town Councilman Sean Todd, firefighter Michael Jones, Fire Chief Russell McGillivray, and Bill Perry, Cienki threatened to “cut off” Bill Perry’s “balls and feed them to his dog.” Perry filed a complaint with the town.

Thereafter, Coyle was forced out as town manager making way for Corrigan to be appointed; Bill Perry’s wife Laurie was fired from the town’s finance department; and Jim Perry was fired from the fire department. The stated reason for Jim Perry’s firing was the lack of (and lying about) a Firefighter I and II certificate with his application.

Judge Susan E. McGuirl issued her ruling today, concluding that the town violated the state’s open meetings law when it appointed Corrigan town manager. In addition, Judge McGuirl found that Perry was more than qualified as a firefighter, with 27 years of experience including 17 as a career firefighter in Central Coventry. She also noted it was not uncommon for firefighters back in the day not to have paper certificates for their training.

The Providence Journal quoted the judge as saying:

  • “There is no valid reason in this record, that I can see, to terminate firefighter Perry”
  • “The court finds that the town … misled the people of East Greenwich”
  • “It’s time for East Greenwich to turn the lights back on and keep them on”

Here is a copy of the decision: EGFA-v.-Gayle-Corrigan-KC17-0898

More on the story.

UPDATE: Notable quotes from the decision

  • This Court finds Corrigan did not properly terminate FF Perry under … the Town Charter.
  • Corrigan did not receive the recommendation from either the Fire Chief or Acting Fire Chief as required by the Town Charter.
  • The Town’s argument that Corrigan could appoint herself Acting Fire Chief for “administrative purposes”—a position that does not exist—without any authority from the Town Council so that she could then recommend, to herself as Town Manager, that FF Perry be fired is not persuasive to this Court and somewhat absurd.
  • Based on the minimal and incomplete information gathered during her investigation,” without considering the seemingly logical simple efforts that could have been undertaken to obtain further information, Corrigan sent FF Perry a termination letter, via e-mail, at 10:15 p.m. on Saturday, August 19, 2017.
  • The termination letter was issued in such haste due to Chief McGillivray’s return on Monday, August 21, 2017 and FF Perry’s status as a probationary firefighter ending within days.
  • Setting aside the lack of professionalism displayed by the Town with respect to the manner in which FF Perry was terminated, this Court finds without question based on the credible evidence before it that Corrigan did not engage in “careful and factual consideration,” as required by § 45-1 of the CBA before terminating FF Perry for “just cause.”
  • As stated in her letter to FF Perry, as well as her in-court testimony, Corrigan believed that FF Perry lied on his resume by materially misrepresenting that he possessed certificates when he listed “F[irefighter] Level 1 & 2 NFPA 1001-1002 (Coventry Fire Academy).”
  • A certification is distinguishable from a certificate, which is “[a] written assurance, or official representation, that some act has or has not been done, or some event occurred . . . .” Black’s Law Dictionary, (10th ed. 2010). Therefore, it is clear that being certified does not necessarily require possession of a certificate. FF Perry’s resume listed a number of certifications, only some of which he received physical certificates for and provided with his EGFD application.
  • A reasonable person could deduce the meaning of the language contained within FF Perry’s resume. Not only did FF Perry not write that he had Firefighter Level 1 and 2 certificates on his resume, but he also never told anyone he had the certificates. In his interview, FF Perry stated that when he completed Firefighter Level 1 and 2 training with the Coventry Fire Academy, he was advised he met the standard and was certified.
  • Chief McGillivray and Captain Mears both testified that FF Perry disclosed during his interview that he did not have physical certificates for Firefighter Level 1 and 2.
  • Captain Mears also testified that it did not surprise him that FF Perry did not have the paper certificates.
  • He testified that he was familiar with the process because the same issue regarding certificates happened to him when he started with the EGFD. Id. Despite Captain Mears’ having completed training, the EGFD did not provide him with a paper certificate—even though he “[a]bsolutely” considered himself trained in Firefighter Level 1 and 2.
  • Chief McGillivray also stated that not receiving a physical certificate “was common practice.”
  • When asked whether it was alarming that FF Perry wrote that he had a certification on his resume but did not possess the physical certificate, Chief McGillivray testified, “No . . . Like I said, it was common practice you got on-the-job-training, you got certified and went to work.” Id. Similarly, Captain Tighe stated “[t]hat was like I indicated . . . very commonplace in that era where people would take that internal program and say [they] met that curriculum. It was very common.”
  • Furthermore, every firefighter that testified at trial agreed that FF Perry was qualified in Firefighter Level 1 and 2.
  • In light of the overwhelming evidence presented, this Court finds that FF Perry did not misrepresent or lie about his qualifications on his resume.
  • FF Perry did not write that he had certificates.
  • FF Perry was honest and forthcoming with the interview panel. During the interview when FF Perry was asked about his certificates by the Director of Human Resources, FF Perry openly disclosed that he did not have physical certificates and it was explained that firefighters commonly did not receive certificates. There were no further concerns raised by the interview panel or by the former Town Manager in the second interview.
  • In spite of this testimony, Corrigan still argued in her testimony that FF Perry lied on his resume. By then, she was not disagreeing that FF Perry was certified in Firefighter Level 1 and 2. But, she disagreed that his certification met the NFPA 1001 standard. Corrigan could provide no explanation for this opinion, even though it was in contrast to all other expert testimony.
  • Corrigan then finally suggested that his certification was not verifiable. This Court finds that opinion to be also incorrect. FF Perry’s training was verifiable either through the testimony of the witnesses—including Coventry Fire Chief Warren and Captain Tighe—or through the equivalency program or challenge process.
  • It is clear from the evidence that (1) FF Perry did not lie on his resume or misrepresent a material fact—he never used the word “certificate”; (2) the reference to “(Coventry Fire Academy)” on FF Perry’s resume was very common and clear to any firefighter; (3) a reasonable person with any knowledge of firefighter training practices knew or should have known that the language contained within FF Perry’s resume meant that he successfully completed Firefighter Level 1 and 2 training through the Coventry Fire Academy; (4) FF Perry stated in his interview that he did not have physical certificates; (5) the lack of physical certificates was common practice in Rhode Island firefighter training; (6) there is no question FF Perry was both qualified and certified; and (7) FF Perry’s certifications were verifiable.
  • This Court finds the Town’s claims that FF Perry intentionally misrepresented himself and that he lied on his resume to be unwarranted toward a first responder who has dedicated himself to the fire service for twenty-eight years. There was no valid basis to terminate FF Perry.

As for the claims of retaliation, Judge McGuirl held:

  • Even though Plaintiffs raised these claims of retaliation and bias in their pleadings, there was insufficient evidence presented to this Court in support of the accusations. Accordingly, this Court will not address these claims as there are other avenues of relief available to the Plaintiffs

Judge McGuirl also cited the town for Open Meetings violations, fining it $2,000.

 

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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