Cleveland Subbing Scandal Firefighter Claims Race Discrimination

The firefighter at the center of a subbing scandal in Cleveland several years ago, has filed suit claiming his termination in 2014 constituted race discrimination.

Calvin Robinson, 55, a 23-year veteran, was charged in 2013 with felony theft in office and misdemeanor receiving improper compensation for paying other firefighters to work his shift. Investigators determined Robinson paid subs to cover 8,456 of his hours (roughly 3 ½ years of time) between 2006 and 2010.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty stated that “Mr. Robinson missed so much training that when he did report for work he was a virtual stranger to his squad.”

Robinson was not the only firefighter involved in the scandal. In fact, the abuse was so widespread that prosecutors elected to only go after the biggest offenders, those who investigators could document had paid subs to work over 2,000 hours during the four-year audit period. Robinson was the biggest offender, but twelve other firefighters were indicted as well. All twelve ended up pleading guilty and none served jail time nor were terminated.

After pleading guilty to a reduced charge of receiving unlawful compensation in 2014, Robinson was terminated. In May, he filed suit in Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas alleging that he was terminated because he is black. He pointed to the fact that the twelve other firefighters who pled guilty and whose jobs were spared, were not minorities. The city responded by removing the case to US District Court last week.

Among the allegations contained in the complaint:

  • Both prior and during Plaintiff’s tenure as a fire fighter, it was a common practice for fire fighters to exchange scheduled shifts with other fire fighters which practice was recognized and accepted by the City of Cleveland and was a practice that was specifically permitted pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Cleveland and the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 93, the fire fighter’s union that represents fire fighters employed by the City of Cleveland and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which recognizes the substitution of scheduled hours between similarly employed persons. 29 U.S.C. §207(p)(3)
  • For many years, with full knowledge and consent of the City of Cleveland, numerous fire fighters engaged in the practice of exchanging or substituting shifts with other fire fighters and fire fighters who were involved in the exchange were expected to repay the exchanged time.
  • The practice of exchanging shifts had been a common practice within the Cleveland Division of Fire until July 20, 2011 at which time selected City of Cleveland Fire Fighters were notified that the trading of shifts or hours was an issue and should be restricted.
  • Upon being notified that the exchanging of shifts was an issue, Plaintiff immediately complied with the restriction and terminated the practice.
  • Numerous other similarly situated, non-minority fire fighters that were employed by the City of Cleveland were also engaged in the commonly accepted practice of exchanging shifts with other fire fighters, some of whom also terminated the practice upon being notified that the practice was an issue and should end.
  • The City of Cleveland never notified Plaintiff that he was subject to termination for engaging in the shift trading arrangement and no rule or policy was in place that prohibited the practice until on or about July 20, 2011 when selected City of Cleveland Fire Fighters were put on notice that the policy was an issue and the practice should be terminated.
  • The City of Cleveland’s investigation revealed that most of the similarly situated fire fighters that were involved in the shift trading arrangement were Caucasian or nonminorities and not members of any protected class.
  • Although the investigation by the City of Cleveland revealed that numerous fire fighters were involved in the shift trading arrangement over an extended period of time, only 13 fire fighters were disciplined for the practice and Plaintiff was the only minority and a member of a protected that was identified and disciplined as having participated in the practice.
  • All of the Caucasian fire fighters that were identified as having been involved in the shift trading arrangement retained their positions as fire fighters with the City of Cleveland, most of whom are still City of Cleveland employees.
  • Plaintiff’s termination by Defendant City of Cleveland for a practice that was widely accepted by the City of Cleveland while similarly situated Caucasian, non-minority fire fighters were permitted to retain their jobs constitutes disparate treatment and racial discrimination.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Robinson v Cleveland

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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