Ohio Chief Alleges Violation of Freedom of Association

An Ohio fire chief who was terminated in March because he allegedly allowed a friend of his to assist at a fire, has filed a second lawsuit against the township trustees who fired him, this time claiming a violation of his freedom of association.

Harold Stanton was fired as fire chief of Jerusalem Township on March 19, 2013. The reason given for his termination was “misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance, and misconduct in the performance of his official duties.”  The charges stem from a fire on February 23, 2013 where a friend of the chief, whom the Township Trustees have directed not to assist at fire scenes, allegedly provided assistance.

At the heart of the case appears to be some bad relations between current Township Trustees and two brothers, Jim and Joe Gray. Both Grays are former township firefighters and Joe was once served as a Township Trustee. Chief Stanton and Jim Gray are personal friends and the Trustees had previously ordered Chief Stanton to prevent Jim Gray from assisting at fire scenes. According to the complaint, Jim Gray did assist at the February 23rd fire, but it was without the knowledge or consent of Chief Stanton.

Chief Stanton filed his first suit in state court claiming that Township Trustees violated his due process rights and failed to follow proper procedures in terminating him. Last August, Judge Dean Mandros of the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the chief ordering Jerusalem Township to reinstate and compensate him for all lost wages and benefits. That ruling has been stayed pending the Township’s appeal.

Chief Stanton, who is also a career firefighter in Toledo, filed a second suit in mid-September, this time in US District Court. The two-count complaint alleges liability under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for Constitutional Rights violations. Specifically, Chief Stanton alleges that the Trustees “acting under color of state law, terminated Plaintiff’s employment as a result of his friendship and association with Jim Gray in violation of Plaintiff’s First and Fourteenth Amendment right to freedom of association.”

The suit also includes a second count for a due process violation, although that claim risks being barred given the same allegation appears to have been made and ruled upon in state court in the chief’s favor.

Here is a copy of the complaint.Stanton v. Kiss

More on the story.

Incidentally, for those who have been through the Fire Department Administrative Investigations and Enforcing Discipline program (not to mention my Fire Law class at Providence College), we spent quite a bit of time discussing due process and the right of an accused firefighter to an impartial decision-maker.

In this case, Chief Stanton is alleging that the Trustees served both as witnesses for the prosecution and as neutral decision makers. What is the due process consequence of a neutral party testifying for the prosecution?

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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