MFPD directors OK settlement pact in suit filed by two former employees

District’s insurance carrier also will pay $125,000 to ex-employees’ attorneys.

By MIKE ANTHONY

Two former Mehlville Fire Protection District employees will receive $50,000 each under the terms of an agreement settling a federal lawsuit they filed against the district that alleged they were fired for their union leadership activities.

The Board of Directors voted 2-0 during a closed session last week to accept the offer of its insurance carrier to settle the lawsuit filed in October 2008 by former employees Bob Strinni and Jeri Fleschert.

Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer was absent from the March 11 closed session.

Besides paying Strinni and Fleschert $50,000 each, the settlement agreement calls for the fire district’s insurance carrier, Glatfelter Insurance Group, to pay a total of $125,000 to Woodley & McGillivary of Washington, D.C., Strinni and Fleschert’s legal counsel. Through its insurance carrier, the fire district was represented by Charles B. Jellinek, Sarah N. Swatosh and Brent Roam of Bryan Cave.

Strinni, a firefighter and then-president of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Fleschert, a paramedic and then-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, 2008, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, named as defendants the district’s Board of Directors — Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — and Chief Jim Silvernail. Silvernail later was dropped from the suit.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Strinni and Fleschert by the IAFF sought their reinstatement and monetary damages, including “back pay, compensation, benefits, unpaid entitlements, plus pre-judgment and post-judgment interest.” Strinni had been employed by the district since February 1994 while Fleschert had been employed by Mehlville since August 1985.

The suit also sought “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.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, none of the parties involved “shall issue a press release concerning this resolution or settlement. To the extent that any party is asked about the action or resolution of the action, each party shall state: ‘This matter has been resolved to my satisfaction.”’

None of the parties admit any wrongdoing, according to the settlement agreement, which also includes a nondisparagement clause.

Among other provisions of the settlement agreement:

• The district shall permit Strinni and Fleschert to submit letters of resignation, which will be placed in their personnel files.

• The district shall provide the two with a neutral letter of reference, including dates of employment and positions held.

• Strinni and Fleschert “forever release, waive and relinquish any right or claim to be hired by or to reinstatement with” the fire district. They also agree not to apply for employment with Mehlville.

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.

During an April 22, 2008, closed session, board members voted unanimously to suspend two employees with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. At the time, Mathew Hoffman, the district’s legal counsel, 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, 2008, 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 2008 that Strinni and Fleschert were the employees suspended with pay in April 2008 and without pay in May 2008.

In their lawsuit, Strinni and Fleschert alleged the Board of Directors had “engaged in unlawful retaliation and discrimination” against them as a result of their union leadership activities. The suit also alleged that employees have been “interrogated” and “intimidated” as part of the board-ordered investigation.

But Hilmer has said the investigation was initiated 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.

In a motion for summary judgment — later denied — and a memorandum in support of that motion filed by Bryan Cave, the district contended 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 stated, “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 …”

On March 30, 2008, Martin Becker requested a transfer to another firehouse “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,” the memorandum stated.

The motion for summary judgment stated, “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,” the motion stated.