Civil Service Upholds Bypass of Somerville, MA Firefighter

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has upheld the bypass of a female military veteran for a position as a reserve firefighter in Somerville. Virginia Hussey challenged the city’s decision to bypass her hiring in 2021.

Hussey, an army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, challenged the bypass determination as lacking a reasonable basis, and alternatively as being bias against veterans. In an opinion written by Chairman Christopher C. Bowman, the Commission rejected Hussey’s claims, ruling as follows:

  • Ms. Hussey has much to be proud of, including her distinguished military career.
  • As part of this review process, however, either through oversight or deliberate omission, she failed to provide the City with clear, consistent information and responses in regard to straightforward questions.
  • The City’s Fire Chief credibly explained that he found this pattern of inconsistencies and omissions very problematic for someone seeking a public safety position that will be making life and death decisions as a first responder.
  • I agree – and find that the City’s decision to bypass the Appellant was justified.
  • The City presented ample evidence of the Appellant’s inability to complete her application fully in far too many areas to overlook.
  • The cumulative effect of her repeated instances of carelessness, omission, forgetfulness, and/or evasiveness, taken as a whole, caused the City to question her ability to recall events and/or retell events in an accurate, fulsome manner.
  • In one section, the Appellant completed a lengthy multi-part question on the application that was wholly inapplicable to her.
  • On her application, there appears a series of questions pertaining only to those applicants who were previously in a public safety position, including questions about whether she had been investigated for excessive force, had ever been the subject of an internal affairs investigation, or been involved in a traffic accident while driving a government vehicle.
  • Even at the appeal hearing, rather than admitting to a mistake, the Appellant claimed that operating a crane at a construction site is a public safety position and that failure to properly handle the crane could result in excessive force if it hit something.
  • She refused to concede that the question did not pertain to her either during her panel interview or in her testimony.
  • The Appellant has applied to become a police officer in several jurisdictions on at least five occasions, to include Somerville (3 times), the Massachusetts State Police, and Chelsea, and should be familiar with the term “public safety position” as a result.
  • Her explanation as to why she filled out this section strains her credibility.
  • More troubling than mistakenly filling out a section that did not apply to her, the Appellant failed to answer several questions on the application, to include (1) whether she had ever been dismissed/disciplined by a school and (2) a required explanation about her past use of marijuana.
  • In her application, the Appellant completely left the question blank about whether she had ever been disciplined or dismissed by a school (and if so, a required explanation), even though her sealed transcript, which she was required to produce, revealed that she had been put on academic probation in college.
  • She explained to the interview panel that she flunked out of school because she was working at a job as a personal trainer and she felt it important to go to work rather than classes; however, a review of her resume and application reveals that this to be inaccurate.
  • The Appellant did not begin working as a personal training until after being put on academic probation.
  • In additional to failing to provide certain information on her application, much of the information the Appellant did provide, both in her application and in her panel interview, was inconsistent and/or was confusing.
  • This pattern of inconsistency left the panel with the impression that the Appellant was either being evasive or had a poor ability to remember details and accurately account for events in her life.
  • Lastly, the City believed Ms. Hussey was less than forthcoming in the section of her application where she was required to provide information about any past applications for civil service positions with other municipalities/agencies.
  • I have reviewed her application and the non-selection/bypass letters from the MSP and Somerville Police Department.
  • In her application, the Appellant simply wrote that she was not selected “many different times” by the Somerville PD, rather than providing any type of explanation.
  • In fact, the Appellant had been bypassed for not meeting the claimed residency preference twice and withdrew on another occasion.
  • Additionally, for her non-selection by the State Police, the Appellant simply wrote, “down to the end and wasn’t picked.”
  • This is hardly a full explanation of why she was not selected, as evidenced by the non-selection letter, which details the reasons for her non-selection.
  • The City was reasonable in its concern about the Appellant’s ability to relay consistent, complete, and accurate information in her application and during her interview.
  • Any one of these omissions or inconsistencies on her application, taken alone, may not be reason by itself to justify bypassing the Appellant; yet all of the aforesaid issues with her application and/or panel interview, taken comprehensively, form a valid basis for considering the Appellant unsuitable for the position of firefighter.
  • At times during the pendency of this case, prior counsel for the Appellant suggested that the Department has a bias against veterans, since the Department bypassed certain veterans.
  • There is no evidence of a bias against veterans in this particular case, beyond that mere assertion.
  • In fact, Assistant Chief Christopher Major, who is on the hiring panel, is a veteran himself.
  • Fire Chief Charles Breen selected Assistant Chief Major to be the Assistant Chief and to be part of the interview panel for hiring.
  • After listening closely to their testimony, I did not find any evidence of bias that they may have held against the Appellant personally or because she is a veteran.

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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