RI Firehouse Altercation Prompts Federal Lawsuit

A Rhode Island fire lieutenant who claims he was assaulted in the firehouse by a deputy chief has filed suit in US District Court against the fire department, the firefighters’ union and the deputy chief.

Cranston Lieutenant Scott Bergantino filed suit last week naming the City of Cranston, IAFF Local 1363, and Deputy Chief Paul Valletta as defendants. The five count complaint alleges assault, negligent training (deliberate indifference) constituting a civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. §1983, breach of the duty of fair representation, negligence, and civil conspiracy.

The incident that sparked the suit occurred on September 9, 2017 when Lt. Bergantino refused his union’s request to participate in the Fill The Boot Campaign for Muscular Dystrophy. Besides being Lt. Bergantino’s shift commander, Chief Valletta was the president of IAFF Local 1363. According to the complaint:

  • Fill the Boot fundraisers are not work, are not required by the union contract, and are not sanctioned by the City of Cranston.
  • Lt. Bergantino believed that it was in bad taste for firefighters to ask citizens for money as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Floridajust days after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes.
  • Also, earlier this year, the Cranston City Council passed an ordinance banning panhandling.
  • Lt. Bergantino told his crew they would not participate in the Fill the Boot collections that day.
  • Chief Valletta called [and] asked Lt. Bergantino if his crew was going to participate in the Fill the Boot fundraiser.
  • Bergantino reiterated that his crew would not be participating in the fundraiser that day.
  • Chief Valletta told Lt. Bergantino to get his men together and that he was coming to the station.
  • Chief Valletta hung up on Lt. Bergantino.
  • When Chief Valletta arrived at the station, he told Lt. Bergantino’s crew that they should participate in the Fill the Boot fundraising.
  • Chief Valletta criticized Lt. Bergantino in front of Lt. Bergantino’s crew.
  • Chief Valletta disclosed confidential health information about Lt. Bergantino to members of Lt. Bergantino’s crew.
  • Lt. Bergantino asked Chief Valletta why he recently did not give Lt. Bergantino certain overtime shifts.
  • Lt. Bergantino asked Chief Valletta who he should file a union grievance with to complain about Chief Valletta refusing to give him overtime.
  • Chief Valletta replied, “me!” and then laughed.
  • Chief Valletta started provoking and yelling at Lt. Bergantino. An argument ensued.
  • Chief Valletta lurched at Lt. Bergantino, slammed him up against a whiteboard, punched him in the head twice, then pushed him over a large chair onto the floor, slamming his head.
  • Firefighters yelled, “Chief stop, stop. Chief, come on, stop!” at Chief Valletta.
  • Firefighters had to pull Chief Valletta off of Lt. Bergantino.
  • On his way out, Chief Valletta yelled at Lt. Bergantino, “Don’t worry, I’ll run into you again.” [Editorial note: the word “Mr.” before each firefighter’s name in the complaint was replaced with their respective rank to improve readability]

Chief Valletta was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct following the incident. He was also placed on leave from the fire department, but has since returned to duty. Chief Valletta’s account of the incident includes an allegation that Lt. Bergantino made a disparaging remark about the chief’s mother that precipitated the altercation.

Earlier this month, Judge Elaine Bucci found Chief Valletta not guilty of assault charges, but guilty of disorderly conduct. She granted him a one-year filing of the charges, meaning that if he stays out of trouble for one year the charges including the guilty finding will be dismissed.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Bergantino v City of Cranston

Here is earlier coverage of the criminal case:

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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  • Frank

    It’s simply incomprehensible to me that an assistant chief is not only allowed to still remain in the union, but also to be the union president. Am I the only one that sees a conflict of interest? I’ve always felt that nobody in a position to hire, fire, promote, or demote (or perhaps even to evaluate) should be allowed to hold union leadership positions. It’s just rife with potential complications. I recall back when I was on the line our union president was also a battalion chief who was best friends with the fire chief. Whenever we tried to escalate an issue through the grievance or ULP process, he’d bully us to withdraw it. If people tried to persist, they’d pay for it dearly when it came to annual reviews or promotions. Sure, somebody could have filed a lawsuit, but we were a small local and everyone was too scared to do anything about it.

    Curt, you’re from the RI area. Is it normal there to have administrative officers in the union?

    • CurtVarone

      It is unusual for the fire chief and an assistant chief (4 bugle) to be in the union. In this case it was a line deputy/shift commander.

      Personally I have alot of sympathy for chiefs of any rank who are unprotected from the political powers that be. There are too many unscrupulous elected officials out there who have no problem bullying anyone and everyone they can. It is just terrible how some of these folks treat their chiefs. They are miserable human beings and how they get themselves elected it beyond me. I wish unions were not necessary, but in this far-from-perfect world we live in they offer protection from these bullies.

      Having said that, having a ranking officer serve as union president or even on the eBoard is problematic. Officers are more likely to be accused of violating the CBA and thus responsible for a grievable breach. When I made captain in Providence I was on the eBoard and tendered my resignation from the board. The president at the time and the remainder of the eBoard asked me to stay and I continued until I made Battalion Chief. Rank is certainly a liability to a union official.

      Ultimately – whether someone remains as union president or any other elected union office is a function of an annual or biennial election. The membership decides – and they decide who they want. If someone has the support of the membership despite their high rank… that says alot their character. It says the membership trusts that person despite the conflict of interest.

      Notwithstanding that – I do not think it is a good idea for a chief officer to serve as an elected union official that includes firefighters. A chief officer serving as an elected official in an officers union would be a different story.

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