Massachusetts Civil Service Reinstates Deputy Chief But Demotes Him to Firefighter

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has overturned the termination of a deputy chief, but concluded that the fire department had established enough misconduct to warrant his demotion to firefighter. The case involved Easton Deputy Chief Timothy Griffin, who was charged with several offenses stemming from a domestic incident on January 26, 2018.

Following his arrest, Chief Griffin was placed on paid administrative leave. After a jury trial in 2019, Chief Griffin was found not guilty of all charges and sought to return to duty. At that point, the Town of Easton gave him a hearing on charges of conduct unbecoming related to the domestic incident. Following a hearing on January 8, 2020 he was terminated.

Chief Griffin appealed the termination to the Civil Service Commission contending the town lacked just cause for termination. Quoting from the Commission’s decision (internal quotation marks and citations removed to facilitate reading):

  • As a general rule, the Commission determines just cause for discipline by inquiring whether the employee has been guilty of substantial misconduct which adversely affects the public interest by impairing the efficiency of public service.
  • The Commission is guided by the principle of uniformity and the equitable treatment of similarly situated individuals [both within and across different appointing authorities] as well as the underlying purpose of the civil service system to guard against political considerations, favoritism and bias in governmental employment decisions.
  • It is also a basic tenet of merit principles, which govern civil service law, that discipline must be remedial, not punitive, designed to correct inadequate performance and [only] separating employees whose inadequate performance cannot be corrected.
  • Off-duty behavior by a public employee must bear a direct and significant nexus to his or her ability to perform the official duties of the position in order for it to be subject to discipline
  • The Commission [has] considerable discretion to affirm, vacate or modify discipline but that discretion is not without bounds and requires sound explanation for doing so.
  • Easton is fully entitled to hold its public safety personnel, especially those holding a senior, command position, to a high standard of professionalism and, in particular, the EFD is entitled to exclude from such employment those who engage in acts of domestic violence.
  • In this appeal, however, upon de novo review of the facts, I conclude that the preponderance of the evidence does not support that, during Dep. Chief Griffin’s encounter at the home of Ms. A, he assaulted her or threatened her with a firearm as the termination letter issued by Easton concluded.
  • EFD did establish, however, that Dept. Chief Griffin’s behavior concerning his encounter with Ms. A rose to the level of conduct unbecoming of him and his misconduct was both reasonably related to his fitness to perform the duties of EFD Deputy Chief and provided just cause for modified discipline and warrants a demotion to the rank of Firefighter and a five-year disqualification from promotion.

The decision goes on to explain why the Commission believed Chief Griffin’s testimony over that of the victim (identified in the decision as Ms. A). Attendees of Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service as well as the Credibility Determinations program will appreciate how the Commission’s decision navigates the “he said-she said” aspect of the credibility assessment.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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