Former Mehlville fire district employees sue, say firings were result of union activities

Strinni, Fleschert seek reinstatement and damages

By MIKE ANTHONY

Two former Mehlville Fire Protection District employees contend in a lawsuit filed last week that they were fired by the Board of Directors for their union leadership activities.

Bob Strinni, a firefighter and president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Jeri Fleschert, a paramedic and secretary of the Local 1889 Executive Board, were fired by the Board of Directors in June for what Mehlville officials termed a violation of the district’s anti-harassment policy.

Strinni had been employed by the district since February 1994 while Fleschert had been employed by Mehlville since August 1985.

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, Strinni referred the Call to Barry, who was unavailable for comment before press time.

The Board of Directors voted unanimously during an April 22 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 to hire Metro Security to assist in the investigation at a cost of $75 per hour.

During an April 22 closed session, board members voted unanimously to suspend two employees with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. At the time, the district’s legal counsel, Mathew Hoffman, declined to release the names of the two, saying no final action had been taken by the board regarding the employees.

During a May 8 closed session, the board voted unanimously to suspend two employees without pay pending the outcome of the investigation. The names of the two again were not released because no final action had been taken by the board. Hoffman told the Call in June that Strinni and Fleschert were the employees suspended with pay April 22 and without pay May 8.

Besides voting to terminate Strinni and Fleschert during a June 13 closed session, the board voted to suspend firefighter John Schindler for one day without pay for an unspecified violation of district policy and firefighter John Lipina for two days without pay for an unspecified violation of district policy.

Schindler has been employed by the district since November 1980 while Lipina has been employed by Mehlville since January 2001.

The lawsuit alleges the Board of Directors has “engaged in unlawful retaliation and discrimination” against Strinni and Fleschert 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.

After the resolution initiating the investigation was adopted by the board, the lawsuit contends, “The defendants then immediately targeted for adverse actions plaintiffs Strinni and Fleschert as the highest ranking officers and spokespersons for Local 1889 and its members. The very next day, the defendants Hilmer, Stegman and Ryan ordered their investigation and before the investigation was commenced, on April 23, 2008, defendants suspended plaintiffs Strinni and Fleschert indefinitely with pay.

“In letters from defendant Hilmer dated April 23, 2008, he informed Strinni and Fleschert that the district’s Board of Directors — including defendants Stegman and Ryan — had voted unanimously to suspend Strinni and Fleschert pending the investigation of an unspecified ’employment matter.’ In subsequent investigations, the district only revealed that its investigation involved ‘personnel,’ but was not related to any complaint from any employees or any charges of misconduct.”

The lawsuit also contends that one or more of the defendants, including Stegman, “have made comments to district fire personnel that it would be best if they were not associated with or members of Local 1889.”

The suit also alleges that employees have been “interrogated” and “intimidated” as part of the board-ordered investigation.

“… The defendants had a dozen or more employees of the district’s fire department interrogated and intimidated during its ‘investigation.’ As a result, one or more members of Local 1889 felt compelled to drop out as members of the labor association … Labor association representative Louie Wright attended the district’s interrogations of about a dozen of the employees of the district’s fire department,” the lawsuit states. “No significant information was produced showing that plaintiffs Strinni and Fleschert had engaged in improper harassment or intimidation of co-workers while on duty.”

The lawsuit further alleges that district officials have been unresponsive to requests from union officials about information relating to the investigation. On June 26, legal counsel for Strinni and Fleschert sent a letter to Hilmer, Stegman, Ryan, Silvernail and Hoffman “pointing out that the suspensions and terminations of Strinni and Fleschert violated their constitutional and legal rights, including their First Amendment rights of free association and free speech. The letter cited applicable law and pertinent court decisions.

“The correspondence also demanded full make-whole relief for Strinni and Fleschert and absent a positive response by defendants, there would be no alternative except to pursue court action … Neither the defendants nor the district’s legal counsel responded to this letter.”