Court Finds Firefighters Different Than Police For Dishonesty Purposes

Richard Urich, a member of Local 2156 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, is a firefighter-paramedic for the City of North Royalton, Ohio. On April 17, 2010, Urich and two other firefighters were dispatched to assist a resident suffering an apparent seizure. Upon arriving at the scene, they were informed by the patient’s wife that the patient had a history of heroin abuse.

The paramedics forcibly removed the bathroom door and found the patient unconscious on the bathroom floor. Urich established an IV line and injected Narcan into the patient’s system to counteract the effect of a possible heroin overdose. The patient regained consciousness and within minutes was able to walk to the rescue squad to be transported to a hospital.

Prior to departing the bathroom with the patient, Urich flushed the toilet containing paper and debris. Urich also inserted the syringe used by the patient and a small package wrapped with a rubber band inside the empty Narcan box. While he was leaving the apartment, Urich informed his lieutenant, who had recently arrived on the scene, that he flushed the toilet in order to protect the safety of the patient’s child. Prior to departing, Urich removed the syringe from the Narcan box and placed it in the sharps container located in the rescue squad vehicle. Urich also placed the rubber-band-wrapped package on the deck of the rescue squad next to the sharps container.

Upon arriving at the hospital with the patient, Urich was contacted by a dispatcher with the North Royalton Police Department, who inquired whether there were any drugs on the scene. Urich told the dispatcher that everything had been flushed down the toilet to protect the child. Urich subsequently had a discussion with his co-workers concerning the patient’s syringe and rubber-band-wrapped package located in the rescue squad vehicle. Soon thereafter, Urich telephoned North Royalton police and indicated that his co-workers had found the patient’s syringe and rubber-band-wrapped package in the rescue vehicle that apparently must have fallen out of the patient’s pocket. The North Royalton police subsequently retrieved the syringe and package and instructed Urich to complete a statement form regarding the incident.

Urich was later arrested and formally charged with the following three felony violations: tampering with evidence, obstructing justice, and drug possession. On April 28, 2011, Urich pleaded guilty to a single count of attempted obstructing justice, a first degree misdemeanor. The City terminated Urich, and Local 2156 challenged the termination in arbitration.

When an arbitrator ordered Urich reinstated without back pay, the City contested the Arbitrator’s opinion in the Ohio Court of Appeals. The City argued that the Arbitrator’s decision was against public policy because it ordered the reinstatement of a firefighter who was not only dishonest, but who had lied to the police. The City pointed to a decision by a different branch of the Court of Appeals overturning on public policy grounds an arbitrator’s opinion reinstating a dishonest police officer.

The Court rejected the City’s arguments, finding there to be a crucial difference between firefighters and police officers. The Court observed that “while we recognize that at least one Ohio court has found a dominant, well-defined public policy against the reinstatement of a police officer who falsifies a police report, no Ohio court has reached the same conclusion with respect to a firefighter-paramedic.

“In recognizing that a clear public policy existed in prohibiting the reinstatement of police officers who falsified reports, the Fourth District specifically emphasized that a state statute recognizes that the police force of a municipal corporation is obligated to preserve the peace, protect persons and property, and obey and enforce all criminal laws of the states and the United States. The Court further recognized that honesty is vital to the effective performance of these duties and to ensuring public trust and confidence in the police force. These same considerations, however, do not apply to a firefighter-paramedic nor are they delineated under the statute with respect to firefighters.

“Thus, while we certainly do not condone dishonesty and recognize that it is disfavored in the workplace, we cannot say that a dominant, well-defined public policy exists that all acts of dishonesty warrant immediate termination of a firefighter-paramedic’s employment. We likewise cannot say that a clear public policy precludes the reinstatement of a firefighter-paramedic who has provided inaccurate written reports or a false witness statement to the police.”

City of North Royalton v. Urich, 2013 WL 2382821 (Ohio App. 2013).