Former firefighters sue Suffolk

Published 9:12 am Wednesday, September 22, 2010


SUFFOLK—Four former Suffolk firefighters have filed suit against the city, claiming it has failed to provide fair and impartial grievance proceedings after the employees were fired.

The suit, filed Thursday in Suffolk Circuit Court, challenges the city ordinance that applies to the grievance procedure. Attorney Mike Imprevento, who is representing the former firefighters, says the ordinance is too vague, and the city rarely upholds the decisions of grievance panels.

“[The ordinance] orders the grievance panels to uphold the city’s decision if they believe that the charges were appropriate, which is a standard that guts any notion of due process,” Imprevento said.

The four were terminated on April 8 for reasons that Imprevento declined to reveal. WVEC reported that firefighters’ union officials said the terminations were tied to allegations of cheating during paramedic training.

The Suffolk News-Herald learned in April the Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services was investigating some members of the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue for allegations of falsifying certification requirements.

Most city employees who are terminated have the option to follow a grievance procedure established by city ordinance. The first steps of the procedure include discussing the issue verbally with a supervisor, submitting a written complaint to the supervisor, appealing the decision of the supervisor to the department director and appealing the director’s decision to the city manager.

Those who are dissatisfied with the results of the first four steps can request a hearing before a grievance panel. In the case of employee termination, the panel is made up of two impartial city employees — one chosen by the city manager and one by the grievant — and an administrative hearing officer appointed by the executive secretary of the state Supreme Court.

Imprevento said two other employees fired under similar circumstances to the four he represents have had panel hearings. One is back at work, and the other is not.

“We’re not going to panel hearings until the grievance ordinance is clarified,” Imprevento said.

In his experience, Imprevento said, Suffolk regularly ignores the findings of grievance panels.

“Suffolk stands alone as the only city that routinely fails to respect the decisions of grievance panels,” he said. “Suffolk routinely ignores them. Sometimes they uphold them, but that’s far too arbitrary a result. It should be upsetting to every Suffolk public employee that they have less rights than employees in adjacent cities.”

The lawsuit asks the court, among other things, to order that any panel hearing the plaintiffs’ matters hear them under the state grievance procedures and to order any relief that will ensure impartial panel hearings are “unfettered by the constraints of an ordinance that attempts to predetermine the outcome through some illusory threshold standard incapable of definition.”