NJ Court Orders Firefighter Reinstated

A New Jersey firefighter who was terminated in 2017 over an issue with residency documentation submitted with his application, has been ordered reinstated with backpay by the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Christopher D’Amico was fired by the City of Plainfield because he altered an insurance card by accurately adding his address.

D’Amico challenged his dismissal before the Civil Service Commission contending that he merely added accurate information to the card, and was candid at all times about doing so. The Civil Service Commission found he was wrongfully terminated, prompting the city to appeal to Superior Court. As explained by the court:

  • D’Amico was terminated by the City in September 2017 for failure to display moral character in his position as a firefighter.
  • The City’s decision was grounded on D’Amico’s admitted alteration of a document submitted with his application for employment as a City firefighter. 
  • To become a City firefighter, applicants are required to prove residency. D’Amico submitted several documents supporting his Plainfield residency, including a roller hockey alliance insurance card.
  • D’Amico modified the card to include his actual residential address in Plainfield.
  • According to D’Amico, he revised the card because he did not have additional proof of residency when he was asked for further documentation as part of the pre-employment review process.
  • The City’s hiring committee recommended against hiring D’Amico based on his alteration of the card submitted with his employment application.
  • However, the City’s Fire Chief decided to hire D’Amico. D’Amico attended the fire academy starting in June 2017.
  • A citizen questioned the residency of several cadets attending the fire academy at that time.
  • As a result, D’Amico’s residency was re-examined in July 2017.
  • During the July re-examination, D’Amico again admitted to altering the card.
  • Ultimately, the concerned citizen’s non-residency allegation regarding D’Amico was deemed to be unfounded. 
  • D’Amico graduated from the fire academy in September 2017.
  • Because D’Amico admitted to altering a residency document, even though the information added to the card was accurate, the City’s Director of Public Safety told the City’s Fire Chief to terminate D’Amico.
  • When D’Amico and two other cadets reported to work on September 11, 2017, they were terminated from their jobs. 
  • D’Amico appealed his termination [to the Civil Service Commission].
  • [An Administrative Law Judge] concluded the City’s termination was improper because D’Amico’s altering the card to include his Plainfield address did not significantly impinge on the character and morals of a firefighter.
  • The ALJ noted D’Amico inserted truthful information regarding his address on the card, which was one of several documents supplied to prove his residency.
  • After considering the testimony and evidence, the ALJ reversed D’Amico’s termination as a City firefighter, reinstated him, and compelled back pay.
  • The City [appealed to the full Civil Service Commission], contending the ALJ misapplied to burden of proof, and D’Amico bore the burden of proving he did not falsify a document.
  • The City asserted D’Amico was terminated for altering the card and lying to the investigators.
  • After reviewing the City’s exceptions, the Commission agreed with the ALJ.
  • It held D’Amico provided his true address on the card and the addition of correct information on the document did not indicate a lack of character or morals to be a firefighter.
  • Even if it were, the Commission concluded the City was aware of the altered document in May 2017, before D’Amico was hired and attended the fire academy.
  • Based on its findings, the Commission reinstated D’Amico, and awarded him back pay, benefits, and seniority status.
  • On appeal [to Superior Court], the City argues the Commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious because it disregarded established case law and its own precedent.
  • Based on its review of the evidence, the Commission found D’Amico’s “modifying the [card] by providing his actual address and identification number on it does not indicate that he lack[ed] the character and morals to be a [f]ire [f]ighter.”
  • D’Amico never disputed that he altered the card
  • The Commission held D’Amico’s acts were insufficient to cast doubt upon his maturity and judgment, which were traits necessary for him to serve as a City firefighter.
  • The ALJ and Commission considered the testimony of several witnesses for the City who offered their opinion that D’Amico’s alteration of the card fell below the requisite standard of behavior for a firefighter.
  • The testimony of these witnesses was weighed against the City Fire Chief’s testimony, who explained D’Amico’s voluntary agreement to participate in the fire academy a second time and his performance while in the fire academy demonstrated a greater than usual standard of good behavior.
  • Having reviewed the record, we are satisfied the Commission rendered findings of fact and conclusions of law firmly grounded in the evidence presented.
  • The Commission’s determinations were supported by substantial credible evidence in the record and were neither arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.

Here is a copy of the ruling:

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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