Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Reinstatement and Damages To Laramie Firefighter Terminated in 2012

The Supreme Court of Wyoming has upheld a jury verdict in favor of the estate of a Laramie firefighter who was fired in 2012, ordered reinstated in 2016, and who sued a second time in 2017 after the city refused to rehire him.

Bret Vance filed the second suit after city officials in 2017 claimed he was ineligible to be rehired despite a 2016 Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that essentially mandated it by upholding a Civil Service Commission decision in his favor. A jury awarded him $280,000 in the second case, but during the pendency of the appeal, Vance passed away, prompting his estate to continue the battle.

The travel of this case is enough to make me want to have a drink, so perhaps it is fitting that we start at the beginning in 2012 with Vance’s problem with a random alcohol test. To help keep track of things remember: there were three Civil Service Commission decisions, numbered 1 through 3; two suits filed by the city appealing Civil Service decisions #1 and #2; and two civil suits… or maybe three civil suits… depending upon who is counting… filed by Vance. Quoting from the supreme court decision handed down today:

  • On December 5, 2012, Mr. Vance reported for work as a shift commander for the City’s fire department and was notified that he had been randomly selected for alcohol detection testing.
  • Two breathalyzer tests performed minutes apart detected a low level of alcohol in his blood stream.
  • Mr. Vance had previously been disciplined for testing positive for cocaine in 2010. Under the City’s policies, a second drug or alcohol violation could result in discipline up to and including termination of employment.
  • The City issued a disciplinary order discharging Mr. Vance from the fire department, and he requested a hearing before the Commission.
  • The Commission held an evidentiary hearing, applied the civil service rules and the City’s personnel rules, and determined in Commission Decision # 1 that the reason for the City’s discipline decision was “partially justified.”
  • It reduced the disciplinary action from discharge to a two-month unpaid suspension.
  • The City petitioned the district court for review, and Mr. Vance cross-petitioned.
  • The district court reversed Commission Decision # 1, concluding the legal standard applied by the Commission did not comply with Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 15-5-112(b) which required the Commission to determine whether the reason for discharge was “sufficient and established” and did not authorize it to determine that the reason was “partially justified.”
  • The district court remanded the matter to the Commission for application of the correct standard.
  • The Commission … in Commission Decision # 2, refused to consent to Mr. Vance’s discharge. It ruled that the City’s reason for discharging him was not sufficient and established because the breathalyzer tests did not comply with Department of Transportation (DOT) standards.
  • The City petitioned the district court for review, and the court again reversed and remanded.
  • The district court concluded the Commission’s determination that the breathalyzer test results were invalid was not supported by the law or the evidence.
  • The district court ordered the Commission to accept and consider the breathalyzer test results on remand.
  • After deliberating the matter for a third time and in accordance with the district court’s directive that it accept and consider the breathalyzer test results, the Commission ruled in Commission Decision # 3 that the City properly discharged Mr. Vance because he violated the policy that prohibits employees from being on duty with “any detectable” blood alcohol concentration.
  • Mr. Vance filed a petition for review, and the district court dismissed his petition because, instead of raising issues about the Commission’s most recent decision, Mr. Vance challenged the district court’s previous order requiring the Commission to accept and consider the breathalyzer results.
  • Mr. Vance appealed to this Court. We requested additional briefing on whether the district court had jurisdiction to consider the City’s petitions for review of Commission Decisions # 1 and # 2.
  • In ruling on the jurisdictional issue, which we found to be dispositive, we concluded: Under the civil service statutes, Commission Decision # 2 refusing to consent to Mr. Vance’s discharge was final and was not subject to judicial review. The district court did not have jurisdiction to consider the City’s petition for judicial review. Consequently, its decision reversing and remanding Commission Decision # 2 is void and, hereby, vacated. In addition, all of the proceedings that followed Commission Decision # 2 were improper, meaning that Commission Decision # 3 and the district court’s dismissal of Mr. Vance’s petition for review of that decision are void and, hereby, vacated.
  • We issued our decision in Vance on November 7, 2016. On December 12, 2016, the City, through its attorney, sent a letter to Mr. Vance’s counsel, which stated: The City understands Mr. Vance seeks re-employment with the Laramie Fire Department. The City is evaluating that request. As part of that evaluation, the City needs to determine whether Mr. Vance is eligible and fit for re-employment. In order to make that determination, Mr. Vance must undergo a background (including driver’s license) check, employment drug and alcohol test, and physical by the department doctor.
  • Mr. Vance completed the tasks outlined in the city attorney’s letter to the City’s satisfaction, but nonetheless the City did not reinstate him. Instead, the city attorney sent another letter on March 13, 2017, which stated, “it has not been possible for the City to finish a review of your client’s earlier request for re-employment (however it is characterized), as I have confirmed your client voluntarily retired some time ago.”
  • Following its March 13, 2017 letter, the City did not seek additional information from Mr. Vance or reinstate him.
  • On August 3, 2017, Mr. Vance filed a notice of claim against the City, and on October 13, 2017, he filed his suit. The complaint asserted claims for breach of contract, violation of statutory duties, and declaratory judgment, and it sought relief that included: [M]onetary damages in an amount sufficient to compensate [Mr. Vance] for all of his losses incurred, past and future for [the City’s] breach of contract and failure and refusal to allow [Mr. Vance] to return to his former position.
  • On November 13, 2018, the district court …. granted Mr. Vance summary judgment on his claim that he was entitled to reinstatement and damages.
  • Additionally, Mr. Vance [sought] a finding that he is entitled to damages as a result of the City’s failure to reinstate him.
  • Having found that the City failed to properly terminate Mr. Vance and then failed to reinstate him, the [District Court held that] … damages shall be determined by a jury following trial.
  • A jury trial was held from September 9 through 11, 2019.
  • The jury returned a verdict that awarded Mr. Vance approximately $280,000 for lost wages, lost benefits, and out-of-pocket costs for health insurance.
  • On November 15, 2019, the district court entered judgment on the jury’s verdict and an order denying Mr. Vance’s motion for interest, attorney fees, and costs.
  • [Both the city and Vance appealed the ruling for various reasons.]
  • We affirm the district court’s entry of judgment on the jury’s verdict and its denial of attorney fees and prejudgment interest.
  • As a matter of law, the judgment bears post-judgment interest, and the court thus did not err when it failed to specify post-judgment interest in its order.
  • The court erred in denying Mr. Vance’s request for an award of costs on the ground that he did not include the request in his complaint.
  • We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

And if you think that was confusing, try your hand at reading the entire decision:

Vance also filed a negligence suit against the testing company, but the case was dismissed due to his missing the statute of limitations. Here is a copy of that decision:

Here is the 2016 decision as well:

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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