New Orleans Firefighter Reinstated Due to Failure to Comply With Firefighter Bill of Rights

A firefighter with the New Orleans Fire Department has been reinstated and his termination reversed because the fire department took longer than 60-days to complete its investigation. Robert Pitre, Jr. was fired on September 28, 2020 for making a false report regarding an incident that occurred on June 14, 2020.

Pitre was accused of providing a false report in support of a workers’ comp claim filed by another firefighter. That firefighter claimed he was injured by an overhead door that “fell” on his leg. According to a decision by the Louisiana Court of Appeals, Pitre’s statements were contradicted by surveillance video obtained by department investigators.

At the center of the case is the requirement in the Louisiana Firefighter Bill of Rights, that mandates that disciplinary investigations be completed in 60 days. Here is the specific Bill of Rights language:

§ 33:2186. Investigations. A. Any investigation of a fire employee which is conducted pursuant to this Subpart shall be completed within sixty days, including the conducting of any pre-disciplinary hearing or conference. However, in each political subdivision … the fire department may petition the local governing authority for an extension of the time within which to complete the investigation.

The investigation into Pitre reportedly began on July 8, 2020, when he was first notified he was under investigation. He was the interviewed the same day. However, at the time, the video of the incident was not of sufficient quality to identify Pitre.

On August 7, 2020, the department obtained an enhanced video that made it possible to identify Pitre. That same day he was again noticed of an investigation and interviewed. His termination on September 28, 2020 was within 60 days of August 7, but outside of the time frame for July 8, 2020.

Pitre appealed his termination to the New Orleans Civil Service Commission arguing the 60 day period ran from July 8, 2020. The commission upheld the termination, concluding the operative date was August 7, 2020. Pitre then appealed the commission’s ruling to the Court of Appeals. In reversing the commission’s decision the Court of Appeals held:

  • The Notification of a Formal Investigation received by Mr. Pitre on July 8, 2020 alerted him of the commencement of a formal investigation and fact-finding interview into the incident.
  • The rights of fire employees under the statute cannot be subverted by manipulating or disguising the form of query so as to make the Firefighters Bill of Rights meaningless.
  • The nature of an ‘inquiry’ in each case must be considered on its own circumstances, and the characterization of a meeting by the appointing authority does not determine its true nature.
  • The basis for Mr. Pitre’s termination was his responses provided in the July 8, 2020 interview.
  • As stated above, the questions in the August 7, 2020 interview were practically identical to those posed in the July 8, 2020 interview.
  • This finding supports Mr. Pitre’s contention that he was under investigation as of July 8, 2020.
  • Considering both the July 8, 2020 interview and July 8, 2020 notification letter, we conclude the Commission erred in determining that the investigation into Mr. Pitre did not commence on July 8, 2020 and timely complied with La. R.S. 33:2186(A).
  • For the foregoing reasons, we find NOFD failed to timely complete its investigation into the actions of Mr. Pitre.
  • The Commission erred in finding that NOFD complied with the sixty-day requirement outlined in La. R.S. 33:2186(A).
  • Therefore, we find Mr. Pitre’s termination null and void. Accordingly, we reverse the October 4, 2021 decision of the Commission to deny Mr. Pitre’s appeal and uphold his termination.

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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