RI Town Reinstates Lieutenant Fired at Height of Labor Dispute

A Rhode Island fire lieutenant who was terminated last year during a contentious battle between town officials and firefighters, has been reinstated as part of the settlement of a number of outstanding legal issues.

The Town of East Greenwich agreed to reinstate Lieutenant Robert Warner to the department. Lt. Warner was terminated for insubordination and conduct unbecoming. He was also charged criminally with two counts of computer trespassing for deleting hundreds files from the department’s computer system.

The incidents took place at the peak of hostilities between the town’s firefighters and town officials, who were seeking to eliminate a shift and move firefighters from 42 to 56 hours per week. During the course of the dispute the town council president threatened to “cut off the balls” of two firefighters including the union president. After the union president filed a sexual harassment complaint, the town manager fired the union president’s brother from the fire department, and then fired the union president’s wife from her job at town hall. According to East Greenwich News, between June 2017 and November 2018, 59 legal proceedings were filed by or against the town over labor-related issues, most involving firefighters.

The elected officials responsible fomenting the turmoil were voted out of office in November, 2018, and the new town council promptly fired the town manager. The council then set out to resolve the outstanding lawsuits and legal proceedings, which is now reported to be down to 7.

East Greenwich Firefighters, IAFF Local 3328 grieved Lt. Warner’s termination. In a statement released by the town that explains the decision to settle the grievance by rehiring Lt. Warner, the town council said:

  • Upon taking office, this Council inherited 59 active litigation matters, labor grievances and Unfair Labor Practice complaints from the prior administration. Among them was a grievance filed by fire fighter Rob Warner relating to his termination for allegations of insubordination and conduct unbecoming.
  • While there were allegations relating to the deletion of computer files, the prior administration waived the right to assert those claims, as it did not assert those as a basis for his termination. Therefore, they were not an issue in the pending grievance.
  • Regarding the criminal allegations, the matter was disposed of with a plea of nolo contendere to the misdemeanor of computer trespass. This record may be expunged after one year, assuming there are no further such actions.
  • While we do not condone Mr. Warner’s actions, we recognize that they occurred in a highly unusual time in our community where emotions were running high, particularly in the Fire Department.
  • We also recognize that Mr. Warner had an exemplary record of service during his prior 16 years of service.
  • In settling this matter, we are doing what is in the best interest of the taxpayers, given that the likely outcome of the pending grievance would see the Town ordered to reinstate Mr. Warner and to pay him all back wages with interest.
  • Under the terms of this settlement, Mr. Warner pays a high price for his actions, as he will be reinstated, but the Town will not pay him back wages and he will effectively have been suspended without pay for one year. Mr. Warner also will be subject to a last-chance agreement that provides for immediate termination, should there be any further misconduct within the next year.
  • The Council fully expects that Mr. Warner will take advantage of this opportunity and that he will serve the residents of East Greenwich with the same professionalism that characterized his prior 16 years of service to our community.
  • We now move forward.

Here is a copy of the town’s statement:

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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