Two Philly Firefighters Sue Local For Breach of Duty of Fair Representation

Two Philadelphia firefighters have filed a class action lawsuit claiming their union breached its duty of fair representation by misleading the membership about certain pension benefits. Joseph Farrell and Patrick Viola filed suit in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas naming Philadelphia Firefighters’ and Paramedics’ Union, International Association of Firefighters, Local 22 and the City of Philadelphia as defendants.

Farrell, a captain with 38 years on the job, and Viola, a firefighter with 25 years, contend that Local 22 advised members not to sell back unused vacation time, concealing the fact that doing so would have helped maximize their pension. Both member have already enrolled in the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP).

Quoting from the complaint:

  • For decades, the Union has consistently advised rank-and-file union and bargaining unit members not to sell back unused vacation time, claiming that doing so could end that benefit for firefighters and paramedics.
  • The Union and its officials also concealed how selling back vacation time during an employee’s last two full years of service prior to retirement or enrollment in the City’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan could maximize employees’ pensions.
  • However, at the same time, certain Union officials and high-ranking City Fire Department employees were doing the very thing they were telling rank-and-file union members not to do, and were selling back their unused vacation time to the City, thereby increasing their own pensions upon retirement.
  • On information and belief, those Union officials and high-ranking City employees misled rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics to preserve the increased benefits of vacation sellbacks for themselves.
  • Because the “[u]nion has assumed the role of trustee for the rights of its members and other employees in the bargaining unit” and employees are “beneficiaries of fiduciary obligations owed by the [u]nion[,] . . . the [u]nion bears a heavy duty of fair representation to all those within the shelter of its protection.” Falsetti v. Local Union No. 2026, United Mine Workers of Am., 161 A.2d 882, 895 (Pa. 1960). Accordingly, unions must “act in good faith, in a reasonable manner and without fraud.” Id.
  • Local 22 breached its duty to Plaintiffs and proposed class members by failing to “act in good faith, in a reasonable manner and without fraud.” Id.
  • Proposed Class Representatives seek to represent a class consisting of: all former or current City Fire Department employees exclusively represented by Local 22 who retired or enrolled in the City’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) from November 2019 through the present, who did not sell back the maximum amount of vacation time that they could during their Pension Years.
  • Defendants’ actions concealed the increased pension benefits of vacation sellbacks and caused Plaintiffs and proposed class members not to maximize their unused vacation sellbacks until their retirement or DROP enrollment.
  • After enrolling in DROP, Mr. Farrell began to hear rumors that Union officials and other high-ranking Fire Department employees had consistently sold back unused vacation time for decades.
  • In November of 2021, Mr. Farrell contacted Brian Coughlin, Financial Secretary of the Union and member of the City’s Board of Pensions and Retirement, to inquire about this disparity and how it could impact pension benefits.
  • Coughlin informed Mr. Farrell that he and the Union knew that selling back unused vacation time prior to retirement or DROP enrollment could increase an employee’s pension benefits.
  • Coughlin also related that if too many Fire Department employees sold back their vacation time, the City would eliminate the benefit.
  • Specifically, Coughlin revealed to Mr. Farrell that the Union commissioned a lawyer to look into the issue of increased pension benefits from pre-retirement vacation sellbacks approximately a year and a half earlier.
  • Moreover, Coughlin either knew or should have known, as a member of the City’s Board of Pensions and Retirement, how vacation sellbacks affected pension benefits.
  • Coughlin further elucidated that the lawyer commissioned by Local 22 opined or otherwise advised the Union that Fire Department employees would receive increased pension benefits if they sold back vacation time prior to retirement or DROP enrollment.
  • Mr. Farrell concluded that had he known of the benefits of selling back his unused vacation time prior to his DROP enrollment, he could have increased his pension by a significant percentage.
  • Specifically, pensions for City Fire Department employees are determined by their Pension Years (the last two full years of employment prior to retirement or DROP enrollment).
  • In those Pension Years, an employee could have sold back four 48-hour increments of unused vacation time (192 hours total) per calendar year.
  • Each of those 48-hour increments would equate to some percentage of an employee’s pension.
  • Accordingly, an employee with knowledge of these benefits could maximize their pension by selling back twelve 48-hour increments of vacation days (four per calendar year, spread out to be taken within their Pension Years), resulting in a significant percentage increase in their pension benefits.
  • Therefore, employees like Plaintiffs, who would have known of these increased benefits had the Union not concealed them, could have potentially increased their pension payments by as much as hundreds of dollars per month.
  • Plaintiffs and proposed class members were unable to discover these increased pension benefits and the Union’s concealment of them until at least November of 2021.
  • Defendants actively concealed knowledge of these increased pension benefits from Plaintiffs and proposed class members until at least November of 2021.
  • Plaintiffs and proposed class members had no reason not to sell back unused vacation time prior to retirement or enrolling in DROP and detrimentally relied on their Union’s insistence to not sell back that time.
  • Plaintiffs and proposed class members would have sold back their unused vacation time to maximize their pension payments prior to enrolling in DROP if the Union had not discouraged them from doing so and/or prevented their access to information about accessing this benefit.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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