Mass Civil Service Commission Overturns Lieutenant’s Discipline

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has overturned the suspension of a Rockland Fire Department lieutenant, and in the process raised questions about favoritism and racism in the department.

Lt. Craig Erickson was initially disciplined over an incident that occurred on November 2, 2016 when a mutual aid response as a RIT to a working structure fire in neighboring community was delayed as personnel argued over who was to respond. Following a hearing, Lt. Erickson was suspended for 48-hours without pay.

Thereafter, he was accused of being untruthful during his hearing. That offense resulted in a 30-day unpaid suspension. Lt. Erickson appealed the suspension to the Mass Civil Service Commission.

In a ruling handed down last Friday, the commission concluded that Lt. Erickson was the victim of favoritism at best, and race discrimination at worst. In the words of the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Christopher C. Bowman:

  • To me, this case is a stark and troubling example of disparate treatment.
  • A firefighter whose son sits on the Board of Selectmen and served with the Fire Chief on the Fire Station Building Committee faced no formal discipline for: a) engaging in insubordination; and b) providing what appear to be less than credible responses during an internal investigation.
  • On the other hand, Lt. Erickson, the only minority firefighter in the Rockland Fire Department, who recently exercised his right to request an investigation regarding whether certain firefighters were complying with a civil service requirement related to place of residence, was investigated and disciplined (twice) for issues related to the same incident.

The facts are actually quite a bit more complicated than explained above, and are summarized by the commission below.

Here is a copy of the decision: Erickson_Craig_032918

  • After receiving a call for mutual aid from the neighboring Town of Abington on November 2, 2016, Lt. Erickson, a veteran Rockland firefighter with over thirty (30) years of experience, and the officer in charge that day, told a subordinate firefighter that, according to a standing order issued by the Fire Chief, he (the subordinate firefighter) was to respond to the call.
  • For approximately five (5) minutes, Rockland failed to respond to that mutual aid call because the firefighter failed to heed the direction of Lt. Erickson.
  • Instead, that firefighter, now retired, whose son serves on the local Board of Selectmen, questioned Lt. Erickson’s decision and sought the opinion of another firefighter who is the local union president.
  • A shouting match ensued between these two (2) firefighters which resulted in a call to the Fire Chief to settle the dispute, while the fire apparatus sat idle in the station.
  • The picture of insubordination toward Lt. Erickson painted here is even more troubling considering that Lt. Erickson is the only minority firefighter in the Rockland Fire Department.
  • The Fire Chief’s response to this insubordination was to suspend Lt. Erickson for forty-eight (48) hours for lack of leadership while issuing no formal discipline against the insubordinate firefighter.
  • The upside-down nature of all this didn’t end there.
  • After Lt. Erickson served the forty-eight (48) hour suspension without filing an appeal, the Fire Chief initiated a second investigation of Lt. Erickson which resulted in the thirty (30)-day suspension that is the subject of this appeal.
  • In his testimony before the Commission, the Town’s Fire Chief stated that the second investigation was initiated after two individual firefighters approached him and accused Lt. Erickson of lying during his testimony at the local hearing related to the forty-eight (48)-hour suspension.
  • Both of those firefighters, who were sequestered, testified before the Commission and offered testimony which directly contradicts the Fire Chief.
  • Firefighter T.H. testified before the Commission that he had no memory of making such an allegation to the Fire Chief and that it would be inconceivable for him to do so as the Union President.
  • The other firefighter cited by the Fire Chief testified before the Commission that he had no memory of hearing Lt. Erickson testify at the local hearing and he does not believe that he was even in the room when Lt. Erickson testified.
  • I credit the testimony of these two (2) firefighters. They did not make allegations of untruthfulness against Lt. Erickson to the Fire Chief and thus, this was not the basis of the Fire Chief’s decision to initiate a second investigation against Lt. Erickson.
  • I do not credit Chief Duffey’s testimony that Firefighters T.H. and L.O. approached him after the December 14th hearing and alleged that Lt. Erickson was untruthful during that hearing and thus, I do not credit his related testimony that this was the reason that he initiated a second investigation.

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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