Arbitrator Reinstates Omaha Union President

An arbitrator has ordered the reinstatement of Omaha Firefighters IAFF Local 385 President Steve LeClair. LeClair had been terminated earlier this year following an off-duty incident. The arbitrator found that the city lacked just cause to terminate LeClair, while acknowledging his conduct warranted some discipline.

LeClair was fired on April 5, 2019 over an incident in a bar on November 9, 2018. According to the ruling:

  • The video tape of the incident reveals [LeClair] was speaking to many of the people in the bar and greeted them in various ways.
  • He does not appear to be wearing any clothing that identifies him as a Fire Department employee.
  • A security camera at the bar recorded the incident between Mr. LeClair and Ms. Jackson. The video does not have sound.
  • [LeClair] is seen speaking with a woman, who is later identified as Ms. Jackson; he then elbows her in the back and leaves the area.
  • [LeClair] states he said “What white power” to Ms. Jackson.
  • She stated he only said “white power”.
  • The bar owner’s son stated he heard [LeClair] say only “white power”; however, he was not standing near the two individuals involved in the exchange.

LeClair was charged with assault and disorderly conduct. He pled no contest and was placed on 6 months probation. The fire department terminated him for making “a racially charged statement to an African American female and physically assault[ing] her”.

The discipline was grieved by Local 385 alleging the city lacked just cause to terminate, did not take into account LeClair’s work history, and was motivated by the city’s ill-will toward him. In rejecting the city’s argument that it had just cause, Arbitrator Peggy McNeive stated:

  • [A]lthough the Mayor did not seem to remember any specific disagreements between herself and [LeClair] during her testimony the record reflects they certainly existed.
  • Exhibit 77 has a substantial amount of information concerning these conflicts including the fact [LeClair]’s organization opposed the re-election of the Mayor.
  • Although the City makes a point of the fact the City’s witnesses testified the Mayor did not direct them to take actions against the Grievant it is not a difficult leap to conclude they want to make her happy.
  • The Mayor did not have to tell the individuals in these positions to terminate the Grievant; they would have surmised her wishes based on the history of the Grievant and the Mayor.
  • In addition, Chief Olsen had his own reason for terminating the Grievant; as President of the firefighter’s organization he had sued the Mayor over her appointment of the Chief.
  • Based on the above reasons the Employer did not establish it applied all rules, orders and penalties evenhandedly and without discrimination in the case of the Grievant.

The arbitrator ordered LeClair reinstated with back pay, subject to a five-shift suspension without pay. Mayor Jean Stothert is considering appealing the ruling.

Here is a copy of the decision:

For those who have been through Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service, you will see a good discussion of just cause, how complicated investigations involving off-duty criminal conduct can become, and the importance of being able to track penalties assessed in other cases.

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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