NY Suit Challenges Legality of Side Agreement Regarding Nepotism

A volunteer fire department and three of its chief officers have filed suit against a city, the city manager, and the career firefighters’ union alleging an agreement signed by one of the chiefs relative to command at emergency scenes is void and unenforceable. The Peekskill Volunteer Fire Department, Fire Chief John Rose, First Assistant Chief Michael Sniffen, Sr. and Deputy Chief John Pappas filed suit against the City of Peekskill, city manager Andrew Stewart, and IAFF Local 2343 alleging that an “Alternative Arrangement Agreement” signed by Chief Sniffen in June of 2018 could not be enforced.

At issue in the case is the city’s nepotism policy, and whether that policy applies to a volunteer officer who may at some point have to supervise a career employee-relative. The city hired Michael Sniffen, Jr. as a career firefighter in 2018, raising a concern about whether Chief Sniffen’s supervision of him at an emergency scene could violate the policy.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • In or around June 2018, Richard A. Leins, then-City Manager and Commissioner of Public Safety, presented an Alternative Arrangement Agreement (i.e., the Sniffen MOA), to Michael Sniffen, Sr., Michael Sniffen, Jr., then-volunteer Fire Chief Vincent Malaspina and volunteer First Assistant Chief John Rose.
  • Mr. Leins advised Michael Sniffen, Sr. that he had the choice of signing the Sniffen MOA or resigning from his position as volunteer Second Assistant Chief.
  • Upon information and belief, the City did not seek to apply Policy 303 (or its predecessor, PP# 1.000.21) to the supervisory/subordinate relationship between Michael Sniffen, Sr. and Michael Sniffen, Jr. during the approximate eight-year period that Michael Sniffen, Jr. had served as a volunteer firefighter, even though Michael Sniffen, Sr. was his supervisor during all or part of this period and served as Incident Commander at fire and emergency scenes to which Michael Sniffen, Jr. responded as a volunteer firefighter.
  • Pursuant to the Sniffen MOA, Michael Sniffen, Sr. was directed to, in sum and substance, not influence any decisions “relating to the administration of Michael Sniffen, Jr.,” not assume the position of Incident Commander at any fire call/scene/emergency at which his son reported as a Union firefighter, relinquish all supervision at those calls/scenes/emergencies to highest ranking officer at the scene and to not consult or have discussions with anyone regarding employment actions involving his son.
  • Following months of discussions, Michael Sniffen, Sr. signed the Sniffen MOA. Mr. Leins signed it in his capacity as City Manager. Id.
  • The PVFD Board of Trustees never approved or signed the Sniffen MOA.
  • Upon information and belief, the PVFD and Michael Sniffen, Sr. have treated the Sniffen MOA as void ab initio since it was signed because it: (i) violates the City Code; (ii) exceeds the scope of City Policy 303; and (iii) is in excess of the City Manager’s authority.
  • On or about December 2, 2020, the PVFD sent the current City Manager a letter stating that, in sum and substance, the Sniffen MOA was unenforceable against Michael Sniffen, Sr. and other volunteer members of the Fire Department.
  • On or about December 28, 2020, the City Manager replied via email, indicating that, in sum and substance, the Sniffen MOA would be treated by the City as valid and enforceable.

The suit seeks to have the MOA declared “void ab initio and unenforceable.” Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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