Originally Published on: 2009-09-30
By Mike Anthony
Attorneys representing the Mehlville Fire Protection District have filed a motion for summary judgment that seeks to dismiss a federal wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by two former employees.
The two former employees — Bob Strinni and Jeri Fleschert — contend they were fired by the Board of Directors for their union leadership activities.
Strinni, a firefighter and then-president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Fleschert, a paramedic and secretary of the Local 1889 Executive Board, were fired by the Board of Directors in June 2008 for what Mehlville officials termed a violation of the district’s anti-harassment policy.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 22 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, names as defendants the district’s three-member Board of Directors — Chairman Aaron Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — and Chief Jim Silvernail.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Strinni and Fleschert by the IAFF seeks their reinstatement and monetary damages, including “back pay, compensation, benefits, unpaid entitlements, plus pre-judgment and post-judgment interest.”
The suit also seeks “substantial compensatory damages payable by the defendants and substantial punitive damages payable by the individual defendants for the violations of plaintiffs’ rights and the harm to their reputations, humiliation, emotional and mental anguish and for other financial and consequential harm and injuries they have suffered.”
Representing Strinni and Fleschert, who have requested a jury trial, are Woodley & McGillivary of Washington, D.C., and Rick Barry of St. Louis. Contacted for comment Friday, Barry did not return a telephone call before press time.
Representing the fire district through its insurance carrier are attorneys Charles B. Jellinek, Sarah N. Swatosh and Brent Roam of Bryan Cave.
Strinni and Fleschert’s lawsuit alleges the Board of Directors has “engaged in unlawful retaliation and discrimination” against them as a result of their union leadership activities.
“The unexplained discharges of plaintiffs Strinni and Fleschert, who were longtime and experienced employees of the district’s fire department with excellent employment records, was unjustified, pretextual, contrary to past practice with respect to the disciplining of other district personnel and contrary to the district’s policies and generally accepted employment practices with respect to reasonable and progressive discipline for employees,” the suit contends.
However, Hilmer has called the allegations in the lawsuit “baseless,” and has said, “They have nothing to do with why they were fired.”
The Board of Directors voted unanimously during an April 22, 2008, open session to adopt a resolution stating an investigation had been initiated “into personnel issues pertaining to workplace intimidation and harassment … Each and every employee of the Mehlville Fire Protection District shall comply with said investigation. If not, each employee may face discipline up to and including termination.”
Board members also voted unanimously April 22, 2008, to hire Metro Security to assist in the investigation at a cost of $75 per hour. The investigation was initiated, Hilmer has said, after board members learned an employee’s cell phone had been stolen and the employee then was harassed because of the telephone numbers the phone contained.
The district’s motion for summary judgment and a memorandum in support of that motion contend employee Martin Becker was harassed over his brother Michael Becker’s “political affiliations” and whether Michael Becker was friends with Hilmer or Oakville resident James Stonebraker.
The memorandum states, “The uncontroverted facts show that Martin Becker was hired by Mehlville Fire Protection District in August 2007 and within months he (was) subjected to an onslaught of questions about his and his family’s political affiliations. By March 30, 2008, Becker had been cornered by Strinni, Fleschert and Chris Francis — former union president — and repeatedly asked whether his brother was friends with defendant Hilmer or James Stonebraker — who were considered to be the ‘enemies’ — how his brother got a license office and which school-board candidate his brother had supported financially. In the eyes of plaintiffs, these were valid questions because they showed whether Becker’s brother ‘was a bad guy’ like Hilmer and Stonebraker.
“During the same time, Strinni told Becker about a picket in order to test Becker’s loyalty, and took Becker’s phone without his permission to see if Becker had been talking to Stonebraker. Strinni believed Becker was a mole and passing union information to the board. Strinni then told the union Executive Board, including Fleschert, that Becker had Stonebraker’s telephone programmed into his cell phone. Becker knew that the secret was out,” the memorandum states.
On March 30, 2008, Martin Becker requested a transfer to another firehouse, the memorandum states, “because he was uncomfortable working with Strinni, he felt he was being set up to fail, he felt sick to his stomach and he was turning down overtime work. Becker was silently suffering. On April 13, 2008, Fleschert, for the final time, cautioned Becker that she knew he had been lying and warned him that he would take the heat for his brother’s political affiliations.”
Silvernail informed the board on April 17, 2008, that Martin Becker “was being harassed and intimidated,” the memorandum states. “Due to the gravity of the allegations, the board hired a neutral third-party investigator at the recommendation of the fire district’s attorney. The investigator interviewed more than 13 people over the course of one month. By the end of the investigation, Becker confirmed that he had been harassed, Strinni admitted that he had set up a fake picket and invaded Becker’s phone and Fleschert admitted that she pried into Becker’s political business and warned him about his bother’s political activities,” according to the memorandum.
“The remaining witnesses confirmed, to varying degrees, that Becker was the union ‘whipping boy,’ Becker’s phone was taken, Becker had been set up, that Becker was friends with the enemy and ‘they were going to get rid of Becker.’ After weighing all of the evidence, the board unanimously voted to terminate plaintiffs’ employment,” the memorandum states.
The motion for summary judgment states, “Plaintiffs cannot establish a prima facie case of retaliation under the First Amendment because their conduct was not protected under the First Amendment and because they can present no evidence that their suspensions or terminations were motivated by unlawful animus by the defendants. Moreover, plaintiffs cannot rebut defendants’ legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating their employment for violating the anti-harassment policy. Plaintiff Strinni admits to having stolen into the sleeping quarters of a fellow employee, invaded the employee’s private property and disclosed the information ascertained during the unauthorized invasion to several of the fire district’s employees, including Fleschert, evoking fear, discomfort and nausea in the employee whose property was violated.
“Fleschert admits to having obtained the illicitly gotten information from Strinni and used it against a subordinate employee in an effort to determine whether he was her political enemy. Plaintiffs’ conduct was inappropriate and they were terminated for harassing and intimidating a fellow employee.”
The memorandum states, “Defendants are also entitled to summary judgment on any claim of violation of the due process of the 14th Amendment because plaintiffs concede they were at-will employees. Procedural due process is not afforded to at-will employees, like plaintiffs, and substantive due process does not confer any right to public employment.
“Moreover, all of the evidence shows the defendants engaged plaintiffs — through their union — in labor-management discussions. The facts show — and it will be evident — that plaintiffs are really complaining that they did not get what (they) wanted — pay raises — as a result of those discussions. Despite their hand-wringing, ‘not getting what you want’ is not a claim under the Missouri Constitution or Missouri Revised Statutes …”
The motion for summary judgment states, “… Defendants Hilmer, Stegman, Ryan and Silvernail are entitled to qualified immunity because they did not knowingly violate plaintiffs’ clearly established constitutional rights. The defendants, excluding Silvernail who had no involvement in the decision, unanimously voted to terminate Strinni’s and Fleschert’s employment because they believed that the plaintiffs had violated the fire district’s anti-harassment policy. The undisputed facts show that the board came to its decision after much deliberation and that it did not violate — or knowingly violate — any clearly established constitutional rights.”
The full text of the motion and the memorandum can be viewed below.