Attorney Coles Persuades Arbitrator to Reverse Suspension and Demotion of ex-Holyoke Fire Union President

August 23, 2018

A neutral arbitrator has reversed the City of Holyoke's retaliatory demotion and five-day suspension of former Holyoke Fire President Chad Cunningham. Attorney Terence (Terry) Coles aggressively represented IAFF Local 1693 throughout this matter.

Former President Cunningham had long been a critic of staffing decisions by the Fire Chief and Fire Engineers, which the Union believed placed fire fighters and residents at risk of injury. On January 1, 2017, Holyoke experienced a terrible fire that resulted in the deaths of three (3) residents and the displacement of scores of others. Cunningham responded to the fire in his capacity as Lieutenant-Commander of a truck. The truck experienced problems, including with its aerial ladder, which he attempted to address.

The Fire Chief, in conducting an after-action review, watched videos of the response, including Cunningham's actions. He decided not to discipline or recommend discipline for Cunningham. Cunningham publicly blasted the FD administration for removal of Engine 2 from service that day and other days.

The Chief next transferred more than a dozen fire fighters, including Cunningham, to new assignments.

Cunningham grieved this transfer as retaliation. Although the Chief saw no need for discipline, the City changed its view once Cunningham filed a grievance protesting the Chief's transfer of more than a dozen fire fighters, including Cunningham, to new assignments. In response to the grievance, the Board of Fire Commissioners, which oversees the Fire Department, then decided to investigate Cunningham and the incident.

The arbitrator found: "Despite the fact that the New Year’s Day fire was 'one of the largest, most significant fires in recent Department history,' the investigation focused on only one of seven crews that responded to the fire." The arbitrator conducted a three day hearing, after which she concluded that City lacked a basis to suspend or demote Cunningham and determined that its actions were retaliatory in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.

She ordered the City to restore Cunningham as lieutenant, make him financially whole, remove all negative references about the incident from his personnel file and to stop violating the non-discrimination clause of the agreement.

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