Court: Union Can Settle Firefighter Discipline Case

The US District Court for the Eastern District of Washington has concluded that a firefighter’s due process rights are not violated by a union settling a disciplinary matter against him, even if the agreement waives his right to appeal.

The case arose out of a disciplinary investigation in the Spokane Fire Department into allegations of harassment and bullying. The city and IAFF Local 29 entered into a settlement agreement to resolve the charges against its members that provided for relatively minor penalties for those involved. The agreement provided that neither the union nor the affected members could appeal or grieve the penalties under the collective bargaining agreement or through the civil service process.

Under the terms of the settlement, Battalion Chief Don Waller received a two-day suspension without pay. He objected to the settlement claiming the union breached its duty of fair representation and the city violated his due process rights by reaching an agreement that effectively waived his right to appeal without his approval.

Chief Waller filed suit naming the city, the fire department and the union as defendants. US District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled as follows:

  • Plaintiff’s complaint is two-fold.
  • Under Plaintiff’s due process claim, Plaintiff takes issue with the provision in the Settlement Agreement whereby the Union on Plaintiff’s behalf purportedly waived his right to appeal the disciplinary decision.
  • Under Plaintiff’s NLRA claim, Plaintiff asserts the City and the Union breached their duty to act fairly and that the City coerced the union into entering into the agreement.
  • Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s claims fail because the union had the authority to enter into the agreement and acted fairly in doing so, and that Plaintiff does not allege facts supporting the purported coercion.
  • The Court agrees with Defendants.
  • There is nothing to suggest Defendants did anything improper in the negotiations—which resulted in a reduced, minor punishment (a 48-hour suspension) for violative conduct that spanned multiple years.
  • Plaintiff simply does not like the terms of the Agreement, which are not unreasonable on their face.
  • Plaintiff also complains that he was not involved in the negotiations, but this is standard practice while being represented by a Union.
  • Plaintiff otherwise asserts the City coerced the Union to breach its duty, but there are no factual allegations to support this bald conclusion and Plaintiff makes no attempt to further explain the basis for such.
  • Plaintiff argues the City is “elevat[ing] ‘coercion’ to some heightened pleading standard”, but this is not the case—it is black letter law that bare allegations without factual adornment are not sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.
  • Despite Plaintiff’s claim that he was deprived of due process, the matter is less of an issue of due process and more of an issue of determining the scope of the Union’s agency authority. If the Union had the authority to enter a settlement agreement waiving Plaintiff’s right to appeal the disciplinary decision, then Plaintiff’s complained-of rights were effectively waived, at least as it pertains to the protections under WAC chapter 391-45.
  • The parties do not dispute that settling employment disciplinary matters falls within the authority of the Union as Plaintiff’s representative.
  • Plaintiff simply complains that the Settlement Agreement waived his right to challenge the disciplinary decision and that the Union cannot enter into such an agreement on his behalf.
  • The Court disagrees.
  • Importantly, the Settlement Agreement did not waive any substantive right, such as the right to pursue an affirmative discrimination claim—it merely waived his right to challenge the discipline through the collective bargaining agreement or the Commission.
  • Notably, the complained-of deprivation is the right to appeal, itself.
  • Plaintiff concedes he was given a predisciplinary, Loudermill hearing.
  • Given these undisputed facts, Plaintiff has no valid basis to complain.

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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