Termination of Connecticut Firefighter for Bizarre Behavior Upheld

The termination of a Bridgeport firefighter in 2017 for acting “bizarre,” has been upheld by the Fairfield County Superior Court. The suit was brought by Bridgeport Firefighters, IAFF Local 834, who sought to overturn a 2019 grievance arbitration decision that concluded that the city had just cause to terminate firefighter David Greene.

Local 834 claimed the arbitration decision should be overturned because it (1) resulted from an inaccurate interpretation of an earlier disciplinary action involving Greene from 2012; (2) the arbitration decision relied upon video evidence that was taken in violation of the fire department’s policies; and (3) the decision fails to “draw its essence” from the collective bargaining agreement.

The court rejected all of the union’s arguments. In rendering its decision, the court provided a good overview of just cause. The following is the court quoting from the arbitration ruling that explains how the arbitration panel applied just cause. To facilitate reading, quotation marks and citations have been removed.

  • The Grievant was a long-time firefighter with the Bridgeport Fire Department when he was recorded acting in a manner that the City described as strange, unusual and bizarre. The Grievant was sent home early from his shift and, following an extensive investigation, terminated by the City.
  • The evidence presented by the City reveals that this is the second time the Grievant has been terminated for unexplained, bizarre and unusual behavior during a shift. The decision of the first arbitration panel offered the Grievant an opportunity to make better choices, end the behavior and prevent a second occurrence of such behavior.
  • The undisputed evidence in the raw, unedited video taken May 8, 2017, revealed the Grievant acting in a strange, unusual, agitated and bizarre manner.
  • When given the opportunity to explain his behavior during the Fact-Finding hearing on May 18, 2017, the Grievant denied exhibiting any strange, unusual, agitated and bizarre manner.
  • In the Due-Process hearing on July 24, 2017, the Grievant refused to discuss the incident.
  • During the arbitration hearing the panel heard consistent testimony from three longtime colleagues of the Grievant about this behavior of the Grievant. One Firefighter testified “. . . how is it that Greene is still working and we are left to deal with it?” A second firefighter testified that he responded to the behavior of the Grievant by locking himself in the bedroom. The third testified that he warned his fellow workers to “be careful tonight” because of Greene’s behavior.
  • The panel also heard from the Grievant. His testimony never included an explanation or admission that he acted in an abnormal manner. At no time in his due-process, fact-finding, or arbitration hearings has the Grievant shared any explanation of behavior revealed in the videos taken by his Captain during the shift.
  • In termination cases, the applicability of just cause becomes critically important. The Panel chose this as its primary lens for evaluating the case.
  • 1. Was the Grievant warned there would be consequences for his conduct? The record clearly shows that the Grievant has a history of abnormal behavior. The decision of an earlier arbitration panel was to set aside the termination and substitute it with a 30-day suspension. No clearer warning could have been given that this behavior must stop.
  • 2. Are the rules reasonably related to the safe operation of the organization? Indisputably in the dangerous and ever-changing occupation of firefighting it is crucial that every member of the team be physically and mentally ready for the next call. This is crucial to the safety of both the firefighters and the general public they serve. Through testimony and evidence, the Grievant clearly failed that standard.
  • 3. Was the investigation conducted before any discipline was administered? Through testimony and evidence, the City demonstrated that it conducted a systematic, comprehensive investigation before determining that termination was the appropriate discipline.
  • 4. Was the investigation fair and objective? The documentation of the actions of the Grievant through the unedited video present a contemporaneous and objective view of his strange, unusual, agitated and bizarre behavior.
  • 5. Did the investigation reveal substantial proof of misconduct? The unadorned video supported by credible testimony from three eyewitnesses revealed the Grievant was unable to perform the duties of a Firefighter.
  • 6. Was the discipline applied evenhandedly? No claim was made, nor evidence presented, that the discipline was defective in this realm.
  • 7. Was the discipline reasonable? The panel does not easily support termination, especially one where the employee has long service and in this case was a highly respected firefighter. But, here, the Grievant chose to ignore the 2nd chance opportunity presented by the earlier 30-day unpaid suspension. The evidence and testimony support the City’s termination of the Grievant. The panel is unanimous in denying the Grievance.

The court followed up with the following explanation (again with quotation marks and citations removed):

  • The panel’s decision is grounded squarely on the convincing testimony and video documentation establishing Greene’s bizarre behavior and lack of fitness for duty.
  • The plaintiff argues that … errors [were] made by the panel in applying the seven questions of just cause.
  • The term just cause, despite its relative ubiquity in collective bargaining agreements, does not lend itself to a single universal characterization or test. . . . A common understanding of what just cause requires in this context involves not only a determination of whether the employee committed the infraction in question, but whether the proven conduct constitutes sufficient grounds to support the discipline or discharge imposed.
  • The manifest disregard of the law ground for vacating an arbitration award is narrow and should be reserved for circumstances of an arbitrator’s extraordinary lack of fidelity to established legal principles. . . . Under this highly deferential standard . . . [e]very reasonable presumption and intendment will be made in favor of the [arbitration] award and of the arbitrators’ acts and proceedings.
  • The question is not whether this court agrees with the arbitrators’ reasoning or their conclusions, but rather, whether the arbitration award demonstrates egregious misperformance of duty . . . . or an infidelity to the obligation imposed upon the arbitrators or ‘patently irrational application of legal principles
  • ‘Judicial inquiry under the manifest disregard standard is . . . extremely limited. The governing law alleged to have been ignored by the arbitrators must be well defined, explicit, and clearly applicable. We are not at liberty to set aside an [arbitrators’] award because of an arguable difference regarding the meaning or applicability of laws urged upon it. Even where the arbitrators’ decision entails ‘a misapplication of substantive rules of law’ it will not be vacated unless it is totally irrational.
  • While other, qualified arbitrators could reasonably have reached a different conclusion, the plaintiff has not shown that the arbitrators’ reasoning and application of law is totally irrational or that the arbitrator’s decision exhibits an egregious misperformance of duty or lack of fidelity to his obligations.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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