Ohio Firefighter Layoffs Must Be by Time in Grade, Not Departmental Seniority

An Ohio statute governs the order of layoff in any police or fire department. Under the statute, “when a position above the rank of patrolman in the Police Department and above the rank of regular firemen in the Fire Department is abolished, and the incumbent has been permanently appointed, he shall be demoted to the next lower rank and the youngest officer in point of service in the next lower rank shall be demoted, and so on down until the youngest person in point of service has been reached, who shall be laid off.”

In 2009, the City of Elyria Fire Department eliminated one captain and eight lieutenant. positions for budgetary reasons. The City did not lay off any employees, but demoted individuals who held the abolished positions to regular firefighter. To determine which of its seven captains would be demoted to lieutenant, the City looked at the date that each had been working for the Department. The captain with least departmental seniority was Jamison Norris.

There were 15 lieutenants in the Fire Department. The City again looked to departmental start dates. Because some lieutenants had been promoted from regular firefighter more slowly than others, this caused employees with more experience at the lieutenant position to be demoted instead of those with less experience at that position. The City also included Norris in its lieutenant calculations. Because the Department had hired Norris as a firefighter more recently than several of the other lieutenants, Norris ended up being demoted from captain all the way to firefighter, making him subordinate to employees he had outranked before the layoffs.
Norris and the other demoted employees challenge the City’s decision through the court system. The Ohio Court of Appeals upheld their challenge.

The key question for the Court was how the State statute governing the order of layoff should be interpreted. The Court found that “position seniority” should prevail, not “departmental seniority.” The Court observed that “the City’s interpretation of the statute resulted in the demotion of some lieutenants who had served in that capacity for several years longer than those who were retained. The fact that those firefighters have been promoted to lieutenant sooner than their colleagues was not by chance. Rather, the Ohio Revised Code provides that all fire department promotions must occur by competitive examination. Although examination takers are given some credit for seniority, whoever scores highest on the exam is placed first on an eligibility list, from which all promotions occur. The City, therefore, not only demoted lieutenants were more experienced at that position than others, it demoted those who had reached that rank faster by outscoring their colleagues on a competitive examination, and in spite of the disadvantage they were under because of the lack of overall departmental seniority.

“Upon consideration of all of the factors, we conclude that the statute is intended to provide a method of fair employee selection and promotion based upon merit in fitness. Cities should want to retain their most capable and experienced employees. This approach is also consistent with the process the Legislature enacted for civil service workers in other departments. The City has not persuaded us that the Legislature would insist that more seasoned lieutenants should be demoted over less experienced lieutenants just because they had worked for the Department a few days longer overall. Under the City’s logic, it would be forced to demote a ten-year veteran at a position in favor of someone who had only been appointed to the rank a day earlier, just because the more recent appointee had been hired by the Department as a regular firefighter one week earlier. Such a result is not only illogical, but would undermine the purpose of the civil service system.”

Norris v. Elyria, 2011 WL 3655173 (Ohio App. 2011).

This article appears in the December 2011 issue.