Tennessee Appeals Court Rules Full Back Pay Proper for Firefighter Fired Over Mere Arrest

The City of Memphis has been ordered to provide “full back pay and benefits” to a firefighter who was wrongfully terminated in 2014 following a drunk driving arrest.

Allen K. Wallace, a 13 year veteran of the Memphis Fire Department, was fired following his arrest on October 18, 2014. Wallace, who was off-duty at the time, was arrested in Greenwood, Mississippi on various charges including DUI. According to the decision handed down Monday by the Tennessee Court of Appeals:

  • The sole basis for his termination was the October 2014 arrest.
  • Wallace timely appealed his termination to the Civil Service Commission.
  • In the interim, all charges brought by the City of Greenwood were dismissed, and the records of Mr. Wallace’s arrest were expunged from the public record by Order of the County Court of Leflore County, Mississippi.
  • A hearing was held before the Civil Service Commission on May 10, 2016, and the Commission issued its final decision on September 2, 2016.
  • The Commission found that because the City based its decision to terminate Mr. Wallace solely on the arrest that was later dismissed and expunged, the City did not establish by a preponderance of the evidence that its termination of Mr. Wallace’s thirteen-year employment was reasonable, under all the circumstances.
  • The Commission ordered that Mr. Wallace be restored to his previous position with full back pay and benefits.
  • Shortly thereafter, the City restored Mr. Wallace to his previous rank of firefighter/paramedic but refused to pay Mr. Wallace the back pay and benefits owed to him per the Commission’s order, stating that Mr. Wallace failed to mitigate his damages by seeking other employment/income while he was terminated.

Wallace filed suit against the city seeking to enforce the Civil Service Commission’s ruling. The city raised as its defense the failure of Wallace to mitigate his damages by obtaining other employment. The trial court concluded the city failed to raise the defense before the civil service commission and was therefore not able to raise it on appeal. As a result, the court awarded Wallace $109,265.67, plus post-judgment interest.

The city appealed to the Court of Appeals who on Monday upheld the trial court’s decision in favor of Wallace. However, the Court of Appeals instructed the trial court to revisit its assessment of damages in a manner that will increase the amount Wallace will recover based on an error in its interest calculation.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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