Massachusetts Deputy Chief Sues For Age Discrimination

A Massachusetts deputy chief has filed suit in federal court claiming that changes in the collective bargaining agreement constitutes age discrimination.

Braintree Deputy Chief Alan Predella claims that the union and the town are discriminating against him on account of his age by eliminating the right of those who have worked 34 years (and thus reached their maximum pension level of 80%) to receive longevity pay, sick leave buy back, and paid details. The complaint goes further to allege numerous acts of retaliation and hostile work environment.

The suit names the Town of Braintree, Braintree Firefighters IAFF Local 920, Mayor Joseph Sullivan, Fire Chief James O’Brien, Captain Thomas Grace, and IAFF Local 920 President William Cash as defendants. The 47 page-233 paragraph complaint lists 12 counts including violations of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), violation of Massachusetts Whistleblower act, retaliation, hostile work environment, and violation of the First Amendment.

According to the complaint:

  • Braintree firefighters are keenly concerned and aware of when firefighters holding higher ranked positions might retire, because under the seniority based promotion system, they are presumptively entitled to a promotion to the next highest rank when they are next in line for the promotion under the seniority list. The interest firefighters have in seeing more senior members depart so they can get pay raises and other benefits creates so much hostility among firefighters that a previous Braintree Fire Chief characterized the Fire Department as a “hate factory.”
  • Braintree firefighters pay the closest attention to potential departures in the highest ranked title within Defendant Local 920, Deputy Chief, for the obvious reason that a vacancy in the Deputy Chief title creates a chain reaction of vacancies and promotional opportunities in the Captain and Lieutenant titles below it. Particular antipathy is exhibited toward Deputy Chiefs who have reached 80% maxed out on their pension but who have not retired.
  • As an outgrowth of this antipathy, Defendant O’Brien, Defendant Sullivan, and other town officials, in concert with officials of Defendant Local 920, most notably Defendant Grace, have established a policy, custom, and practice holding that Deputy Chiefs who have “maxed out” in the amount of pension benefit they can receive- because they have, e.g., reached age 53, 54, or 55, and have had three years of Deputy Chief pay- are obligated to retire and collect their pension, so that the firefighters below them on the seniority list can fill their vacancies and get the pay raises, more favorable working conditions, and enhancement of pension payouts that go along with the promotions to higher titles.
  • A number of Braintree firefighters are vocal in their animus toward Deputy Chiefs who maxed out but have not retired, in particular, Defendant Grace.
  • For example, on many occasions, Defendant Grace has stated that because Deputy Chiefs who have maxed out don’t have to pay state taxes on their pensions or pay union dues, their pensions substantially equate their salaries, meaning that they cannot justify their continued employment.
  • To illustrate his belief that there is no justification for a Deputy Chief to work if he has reached the age necessary max out, Defendant Grace has commented that if a Deputy Chief entitled to an 80% pension wants to feel like he’s working, a fair compromise would be to have him retire, then have the Fire Department call and wake him from sleep in the early morning hours, as though he were still obligated to respond to fire emergencies.
  • As another example, for close to a year in the 2015-17 timeframe, a dry-erase message board in the upstairs kitchen at Fire Department Headquarters bore in large handwriting this statement: “Time to Go – 0%?”
  • The rhetorical question “0%?” was intended to provide further justification for the Braintree Fire Department’s policy that retirement upon achieving an 80% was mandatory. It is a reference to the 0% wage increase under the collective bargaining agreement then in effect, i.e., “Why would you continue to work when you already have an 80% pension, and are not even getting a pay raise?”
  • To coerce Deputy Chiefs who have maxed out to retire, Defendant Grace, who has served on the union’s negotiating committee for collective bargaining, has succeeded in getting Defendant Braintree to agree to CBA provisions calling for firefighters with 34 or more years of service to forfeit their rights to longevity payments and sick leave buyback.
  • Both forfeiture provisions were formulated by Defendant Grace andfueled by his animus toward older firefighters who chose not to retire.
  • [A]t the urging of Defendant Grace, starting in fiscal year 2013, Defendant Braintree and Defendant Local 920 agreed that longevity payments for employees with 25 years of service would increase to $3,000, but “[e]ffective June 30, 2011, any member who has attained thirty-four (34) years of service shall cease to be eligible for longevity payments.”
  • Likewise, effective June 30, 2016, once again at the urging of Defendant Grace, Defendant Braintree and Defendant Local 920 agreed to strip firefighters with more than 34 years of continuous service of their right to sick leave buyback.
  • Finally, targeting the Deputy Chiefs, in the most recently proposed memorandum of agreement, effective July 1, 2016, Defendant Braintree and Defendant Local 920 have proposed that “[u]pon completion of 34 years of service members are no longer eligible to sell back vacation time.”

Here is a copy of the complaint: Predella v Braintree

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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