Court sides with City Hall in dispute over firefighter demotions
A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge on Friday sided with City Hall in an ongoing battle over the demotion of 14 firefighters who were just promoted in May.
Judge Leon Tucker upheld the city’s argument that Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers has the authority to make promotions to the ranks of captain and lieutenant at his discretion and does not have to fill the vacancies using the names from a list of those who passed the civil service exam.
That means, barring any further court action, the 14 firefighters who were four months ago promoted – five of them to the rank of captain and nine to the rank of lieutenant – will be demoted this week.
“Paramedics Union Local 22 is understandably disappointed by Judge Tucker’s ruling today,” International Association of Firefighters and Paramedics Union Local 22 President Joe Schulle said Friday in a statement.
“We are immediately moving forward with an appeal to Commonwealth Court to vacate their decision. These 14 members earned their promotions. There was never any ‘temporary’ tag applied to their promotions, no matter what rhetoric the city administration spins to the contrary. We will continue to fight this latest injustice in the court of law.”
The ruling came after months of legal wrangling prompted by the city’s decision in early May to not fill firefighter vacancies based on the then-current civil service list, which expired May 24.
Local 22 sued, and Tucker in his initial opinion sided with the union, ruling May 14 the Philadelphia Civil Service Regulations and Home Rule Charter dictate “vacancies must be filled by promotion at the first opportunity possible, and not whenever most convenience to the officers charged with carrying out the civil service regulations.”
Tucker found that, while the city could reject an applicant who passed the civil service test, the city could not “fill vacancies from an eligible list, halt promotions, establish a new list, and then attempt to promote from the new list once the old list expires,” according to his order.
But the city appealed the decision, and Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini Sept. 18 ordered Tucker’s ruling be reversed.
Pellegrini found that, while the city was required to fill vacancies using names from the civil service list, it was not mandated to do so immediately.
“Nothing in the regulations prevents the city from letting an old list expire so that it can promote individuals off a new list,” he wrote in his opinion.
Pellegrini further ruled Civil Service Regulations “do not give employees on a promotional list an absolute right to be promoted to fill a vacancy as long as the promotional list is still in force” but that the decision to promote an employee or to fill a vacancy “is within the discretion of the fire commissioner,” according to court documents.
Court of Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler on Tuesday issued an emergency injunction putting a stop to the demotions until Tucker reviewed the case, but after hearing arguments from both sides, Tucker terminated the stay order and reversed his own decision.
During the protracted appeal process, the fire department administered a new round of civil service tests and the 14 firefighters who had already been promoted were excluded from consideration, according to the union.
That means that, as of Tucker’s latest ruling, the demoted firefighters will have to wait a year to reapply for the jobs.
Councilman Jim Kenney on Thursday blasted the dispute as “retaliation” against Local 22 from members of Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration and called for investigative hearings into the court battle.
“Everything that they have made this commissioner do and that he’s done relative to discipline, forced transfers, arbitration disputes, and now this promotional stuff, is all done out of antagonism – period,” Kenney said.
“And I don’t care what they say about ‘management prerogative’ or anything else, it’s all about sticking it to them, and that’s a shame.”