Sunday, August 12, 2012

Amesbury Fire violated civil service law in appointments

The Amesbury Fire Department violated the state's Civil Service Statute by making its deputy and assistant fire chief positions non-civil service appointments, the Civil Service Commission recently ruled in an appeal by 24 members of the Department.  The City, which adopted the civil service law in 1975, had not included the positions of deputy and assistant fire chief when it originally submitted its classification plan with the state's Human Resources Division. Those positions were added later to the Department but the classification plan was never updated with HRD, and thus those positions never officially became subject to the civil service law.

In defending its practice, the City argued that since the assistant and deputy fire chiefs performed duties similar to the chief - which is not a civil service position - then those position s were exempt from the civil service law. The Commission disagreed, however, ruling that the plain terms of M.G.L. c. 31, sec. 51 required that all positions in a civil service community other than the fire chief must be appointed according to the civil service law. The Commission ordered that the Amesbury officers holding the title of deputy and assistant fire chief have their positions changed to provisional and the City schedule a civil service examination for those positions.

Superior Court affirms Commission's decision on Methuen chief termination

The Superior Court affirmed the Civi Service Commission's decision from 2010 in which it overturned the City of Methuen's termination of Police Chief Joseph Solomon and ordered his reinstatement. The City challenged the decision on several grounds, arguing that the Commission overstepped its authority by substituting its judgment for that of the City and that, even if the Commission did not overstep its authority, the evidence did not support the Commission's decision. Judge Robert Cornetta of Essex Superior Court rejected each of the City's arguments in a 20-page decision.

On the issue of the Commission's authority, Judge Cornetta noted that the Commission's review of a termination decision differs substantively from its review of a bypass decision. In the latter case, the Commission's role is narrow and limited to determining whether "reasonable justification" supports the decision of the appointing authority. In a termination or discipline case, the Commission has a duty to determine whether "just cause" exists for the disciplinary action taken.

The Court also rejected the City's argument that the Commission failed to consider the countervailing evidence that undermined from its ultimate finding. The Court explained that the Commission is not required to recite all of the evidence and facts presented at the hearing in its decision, only such facts necessary for its decision. The Court explained that the City's argument overlooked the fact that the Commission received all of the evidence at the hearing, regardless of whether it expressly set forth all of the evidence in its decision.

It should be noted that Solomon's termination came after he had been suspended by the City. While the Commission ordered Solomon's reinstatement, it did not vacate his discipline entirely but rather modified the discipline from termination to a yearlong suspension, which Solomon had already served at the time of the decision in 2010. Solomon did not appeal the Commission's determination regarding the suspension and thus the Court's decision did not examine that issue.

Editor's note: Joseph Sulman represents Solomon in a federal lawsuit against the City arising out of the termination.