Recently Fired Cincinnati Fire Chief Sues City, Mayor and City Manager

Former Cincinnati Fire Chief Michael Washington has filed suit claiming his termination last month violated his right to due process and violated the city charter. The federal suit filed today names the city, Mayor Aftab Pureval and City Manager Sheryl Long as defendants.

Chief Washington claims he was blindsided by the termination, not given the opportunity to defend himself, and publicly defamed by city officials seeking to justify his removal. Quoting from the complaint:

  • From the date he was first hired by the Fire Department to his appointment as Fire Chief, Chief Washington never received any disciplinary action for discrimination or harassment of any employees.
  • He always strived to treat all members of the Fire Service with the respect and dignity they deserved, and without reference to their race, creed, color, or sex.
  • On January 4, 2022, Defendant Pureval took office as Mayor of the City of Cincinnati.
  • Between May 2021 and the induction of Defendant Pureval, Chief Washington continued his perfect record of never having received any disciplinary action for any type of employment discrimination or harassment.
  • On September 1, 2022, the City Council voted to approve Defendant Pureval’s recommendation of Defendant Long as the new Cincinnati City Manager.
  • Between the induction of Defendant Pureval and installation of Defendant Long, Chief Washington continued his perfect record of never having received any disciplinary action for discrimination or harassment.
  • In November 2021, after he had been Chief for six months, Plaintiff’s employment as Chief of the Fire Service became terminable only “for cause” under Article V, §6 of the City Charter.
  • This was an important milestone. It meant Plaintiff no longer served at the will of the City Manager. He now had legal protection against the possibility of an unfair or unjustified dismissal.
  • In December of 2022, leadership from both the City and Fire Department met with the organization Women Helping Women to discuss implementing the WorkStrong Program (the “Program”), a four-phase program intended to focus on Gender Based Violence in the workplace.
  • Phase One of the Program launched on February 7, 2023, and ended February 23, 2023.
  • On March 13, 2023, Women Helping Women provided a Training Summary of the Fire Department’s participation in Phase One of the Program.
  • As shown in the WorkStrong Summary, the outcome of the Program was positive overall, and Phase Two of the Program was slated to begin on March 20, 2023.
  • Consistent with the Program Summary, no complaints or issues concerning its implementation were brought to Chief Washington’s attention during Phase One of the Program.
  • Prior to March 24, 2023, Defendants did not raise any complaints or issues to Chief Washington concerning his implementation of the Program, or concerning his performance as Fire Chief.
  • On March 24, 2023, however, Defendant Long unexpectedly – and without prior warning – presented Chief Washington with a letter of termination, along with a “grab bag” of purported “charges” against him:
  • In the first charge, Defendant Long complains that Chief Washington purportedly failed to implement a “climate assessment” and subsequently failed to adequately support the efforts of Women Helping Women’s WorkStrong Program.
  • No documentation of Chief Washington’s alleged failure to implement a “climate assessment” existed prior to the March 24 Letter, and the Executive Summary from Women Helping Women made no reference to a lack of adequate support from Chief Washington. In truth, Chief Washington had taken numerous steps to implement this assessment prior to his termination.
  • In the second charge, Defendant Long complains about Chief Washington’s supervision during a three-alarm high-rise fire on President’s Day 2023. Due to the Fire Department’s rapid response, no deaths were reported despite the fire’s severity. Chief Washington attended numerous fires in his capacity as Chief, and his inability to be present at this particular fire was in no way a dereliction of his duty.
  • In the third charge, Defendant Long complains about Chief Washington’s insistence in adhering to the terms of a collective bargaining agreement in administering officer discipline.
  • In the fourth charge, Defendant Long bemoans Chief Washington’s “acquisition of a training center” for “requiring assistance from the City Manager’s office,” despite claiming previously that it was her “responsibility to ensure [that] firefighters are equipped… with the best training.”
  • The fifth charge is a nebulous, vague, and unjustified critique of Chief Washington’s communication with the City Manager’s office.
  • Chief Washington was not given any prior notice of his termination, nor was he given an opportunity to be heard on the “charges” against him prior to his termination.
  • After drumming Chief Washington out of office, Defendant Long issued a memorandum to Defendant Pureval and members of City Council stating that she was terminating Chief Washington with cause, and setting forth the purported reasons therefor.
  • Rather than present this memorandum to Chief Washington and give him an opportunity to be heard, Defendant Long began a public relations campaign against him, immediately publishing her memorandum to the media and public.
  • Defendant Long continued this campaign in the media by making additional false statements concerning Chief Washington’s conduct and termination.
  • Chief Washington had no opportunity to defend himself from these groundless and exaggerated Charges, and they did not remotely come close to giving Defendants “cause” to terminate his employment under the City Charter.

Besides alleging due process violations and a violation of the city charter, the complaint also alleges defamation. 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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