Fire Department’s “Shocking” Violation Of Due Process Results In Reinstatement, Back Pay

Trevor Murray is a lead paramedic for the City of Clearwater, Florida Fire and Rescue Department. On March 26, 2005, a dispatcher assigned the Department an emergency call received from a well-known “system abuser.” The caller, who is mentally ill and had repeatedly made false calls for assistance to the Department and the Clearwater Police Department, reported (as she had on other occasions) that she was the victim of a rape. Murray advised the dispatcher to let the Police Department handle the call, and to contact him if medical assistance was required.

A Division Chief of Operations reviewed Murray’s actions, found that Murray’s failure to respond to the call was a mistake in judgment, described Murray as honest about his actions, and recommended that Murray be counseled. In the wake of media coverage of the incident, the Fire Chief rejected the Division Chief’s recommendations and terminated Murray. Murray’s labor organization, the Clearwater Firefighters Association, challenged the termination in arbitration.

For two reasons, the Arbitrator reversed the City’s termination decision and ordered that Murray be made whole for all back pay. First, the Arbitrator found that the City’s violation of due process in its treatment of Murray was “shocking.”

Among the aspects of the investigation faulted by the Arbitrator were (1) the Fire Chief’s decision to personally conduct the investigation after he decided that his Division Chief was too favorably disposed to Murray; (2) the Fire Chief’s withholding from the City Manager, who heard an appeal of the disciplinary decision, of the Department’s records that the caller had made at least 15 previous false calls for service; and (3) the Fire Chief’s withholding from the City Manager of significant portions of the investigation, particularly the Division Chief’s investigation. As the Arbitrator put it, “the Division Chief’s report to the Fire Chief is the type of evidence and report that cannot be expunged from a disciplinary file simply because the Fire Chief disagrees.”

The Arbitrator also found that the penalty of discharge “was not just.” The Arbitrator cited the fact that the words used by the dispatcher were unclear, and could reasonably have been construed to mean that the Police Department was already at the scene. Describing the fact that Murray had been an excellent employee for ten years, the Arbitrator held that “simple management coaching could correct Murray’s poor judgment,” and ruled that the Division Chief had hit upon the correct way to handle the matter when he recommended a counseling.

City of Clearwater, FMCS #05-58832 (Holland, 2006)(unpublished opinions; copies available from LRIS).

This article appears in the October 2006 issue