Council Rehires Firefighter Dismissed Last Year

by | Jul 30, 2019

Former Finance Clerk Laurie Perry also rehired

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

Firefighter Rob Warner, fired for insubordination one year ago under the previous administration, is back on the job as of Tuesday, following a settlement agreement with the town. Former finance clerk Laurie Perry, laid off by the prior administration, will also be returning to work at Town Hall in September, following a settlement of her lawsuit against the town. 

The Town Council announced both settlements at a special session Monday. They also announced the settlement of a Fair Labor Standards Act back pay complaint filed by the firefighters union that will cost the town $296,000 over four years. The council also has dismissed a lawsuit the previous administration had filed against the firefighters over platoon structure. 

Warner was arrested last November on two felony counts of computer trespass relating to files he deleted after he was fired from a town-issued computer in his care. He ended up pleading no contest to one misdemeanor charge of computer trespass.

“While we do not condone Mr. Warner’s actions, we recognize that they occurred in a highly unusual time in our community where emotions were running high, particularly in the Fire Department,” Council President Mark Schwager said Monday night, reading from a prepared statement (Litigation Settlements 7/29/19). 

Schwager was referring to the adversarial stance between the previous town administration and the firefighters union. Between June 2017 and November 2018, the town incurred 59 legal issues, ranging from lawsuits filed against and by the town, labor grievances and unfair labor practice complaints, almost all of them involving the firefighters union or individual firefighters. (After these most-recent settlement actions, that number is down to 7.)

Corrigan and then-Town Council President Sue Cienki had looked to pursue cost-savings by moving the fire department into a three-platoon system. They also argued that the firefighters’ contract was overly generous. 

At the time of Warner’s dismissal, the fire department was headed by Chief Kevin Robinson, the second interim fire chief in a year. 

Firefighter Rob Warner

In addition to his firefighter work, Warner handled communications and fire alarm maintenance for the department on a collateral duty basis. In June 2018, Chief Robinson told Warner to do some of his collateral duty work while on regular duty. Warner refused, saying he was needed as a firefighter that shift. The chief then told Warner he was no longer responsible for the collateral duty work and Henrikson appeared at Warner’s doorstep later to retrieve an alarm circuitry book. Warner refused to give it to Henrikson. He was then suspended with pay and fired one month later.  

At the time, town officials also accused Warner of having destroyed files on his town-issued laptop, saying the act put the safety of residents at risk. He was subsequently arrested for computer trespass and eventually pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge.

On Monday, Schwager said the arrest and the dismissal were two different actions, citing a statement by former Town Solicitor David D’Agostino: “I want to make clear, he [Mr. Warner] was not terminated due to the actions that gave rise to the criminal prosecution …[deletion of computer files].”

Council Vice Chair Mike Donegan outlined the specific reasons for Warner’s rehire at the meeting Monday (Warner Settlement 7/29/19):

  • D’Agostino’s statement that the criminal charge was not grounds for dismissal; 
  • EG police and the state Attorney General’s office said they could not conclude that Warner’s actions put residents at risk;
  • Warner’s actions took place “in a highly unusual time in our community where emotions were running high”;
  • The settlement gives Warner back his job but he receives no back pay, a possible outcome if settlement wasn’t reached. 

Schwager, in his statement, said, “We also recognize that Mr. Warner had an exemplary record of service during his prior 16 years of service.”

Warner will be on probation for one year. He will not resume his collateral communications and fire alarm maintenance duties. 

Back on the job Tuesday, Warner said it felt good. 

“I’m happy to be back at it,” he said. “I would like to thank everyone in town and my family and friends who supported me and helped me get through it.”

Former finance clerk Laurie Perry, laid off in August 2017, will be returning to work at Town Hall in September, following a settlement of her lawsuit against the town.

Perry filed suit against the town in December 2017, saying then-Town Manager Gayle Corrigan had fired Perry as retribution against Perry’s husband, Bill Perry, the firefighter union president. The layoff came only days after Corrigan’s unusual Saturday night firing of Bill Perry’s brother, EG firefighter Jim Perry (later overturned in Superior Court). 

According to the settlement agreement, Laurie Perry will receive $90,000 in compensation in addition to being hired back. The money will be paid by the town’s insurance carrier. 

“I’m relieved to finally get it over with, get it behind me,” said Perry Monday night. “I feel like it’s the right thing. I was treated wrong. This is going to make everything right.”

In the FLSA settlement, the firefighters sued the town in March 2018 over what the union said was the town’s failure to pay federally-required overtime. This case extended back before the Cienki-Corrigan era.

FLSA dictates that employees who work more than 212 hours over a 28-day period are due time-and-a-half for every additional hour, including in the firefighters’ case, collateral duty. According to Schwager Monday night, if the union had taken the case to trial, the town could have faced a $1 million judgment (four years’ back pay, statutory double damages, attorneys’ fees and interest). 

Instead, the settlement will cost the town $296,000 to be paid out over four years, with the first year being last year, so half of the payment will be distributed now, with another quarter paid out in July 2020 and the final quarter paid in July 2021.

Lawyer for the sEG firefighter Liz Wiens said the settlement and payment schedule were not typical. “It’s something the union did to assist the town,” she said. “It wasn’t like it was their base salary, so all the plaintiffs agreed to be paid over time.” 

The Town Council also brought to an end the lawsuit filed by the town against the firefighters in December 2017, asking a Superior Court judge to rule whether or not the town could force the firefighters into a new platoon structure mid-contract. Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl ruled against the town in August 2018 but the then-Town Council had said it might appeal the ruling. No appeal was filed before the November 2018 election changed the makeup of the Town Council, but the suit remained open until now.

“In reaching these settlements, the Council has protected the financial interests of the taxpayers and has taken a significant step towards restoring our community,” said Schwager. 

According to Council Vice President Donegan, whittling down the number of legal actions facing the town is pivotal toward lowering insurance rates going forward. 

“What’s significant is our deductible has gone from $5,000 to $100,000 for each [legal] incident going forward. That’s the only way we’re insurable now” following the legal blizzard that descended on the town in 2017-18, he said. “This moves us towards getting us back to a more normal experience rating.” 

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