‘Tentative resolution’ reached in federal lawsuit against MFPD

Fire district attorney says he’s ‘hopeful’ settlement pact will be executed soon.

By MIKE ANTHONY

“A tentative resolution” has been reached in a federal lawsuit filed against the Mehlville Fire Protection District by two former employees.

The former employees — Bob Strinni and Jeri Fleschert — contended 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.

A jury trial, requested by Strinni and Fleschert, had been scheduled to begin Monday morning. But Matt Hoffman, who serves as legal counsel to the Board of Directors, told the Call that because “a tentative resolution” had been reached, the trial was canceled.

“At this point, the district has reached a tentative resolution of the litigation pending execution of a settlement agreement,” he said. “There has not been a final disposition of the case and a settlement agreement has yet to be drafted or finalized.

“Further, the plaintiffs have not filed a motion to dismiss their cause of action against the district. The case remains active in the federal district court, though I am hopeful that a settlement agreement will be fully executed in the near future,” Hoffman added.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 22, 2008, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, named as defendants the district’s three-member Board of Directors — Chairman Aaron 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.”

In a news release issued when the lawsuit was filed, IAFF General President Harold A. Schaitberger stated, “The IAFF cannot stand on the sidelines while two of our affiliate officers and excellent employees are discharged for pretextual and unlawful reasons.

“We are committed to supporting Bob Strinni and Jeri Fleschert until justice is achieved.”

Representing Strinni and Fleschert are Woodley & McGillivary of Washington, D.C., and Rick Barry of St. Louis.

Representing the fire district through its insurance carrier are Charles B. Jellinek, Sarah N. Swatosh and Brent Roam of Bryan Cave.

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, 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, 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 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 contended.

The suit also alleged 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 stated. “No significant information was produced showing that plaintiffs Strinni and Fleschert had engaged in improper harassment or intimidation of co-workers while on duty.”

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.”