Discipline Violates Firefighter Bill Of Rights

Written on 07/09/2022
Will Aitchison

Robert Pitre is a New Orleans firefighter. On June 14, 2020, Pitre was working at Fire Station #24. Upon arrival, Captain Michael Ebbs directed Pitre to obtain his gear and proceed to the location of other firefighters who were responding to a fire. Captain Ebbs and Pitre were the only firefighters at the fire station. Prior to departure, Captain Ebbs was injured when the door through which firetrucks exit fell on him. Pitre came to the aid of Captain Ebbs and an ambulance subsequently arrived. Captain Ebbs filed a worker’s compensation claim for his injuries.

On June 17, Pitre completed a special report providing his factual account of the June 14 incident. He recalled hearing Captain Ebbs screaming for help and found him with the door on his leg. Pitre indicated that he opened the door and reported the incident to dispatch.

On July 8, NOFD provided Pitre with a “Notification of a Formal Investigation” alleging that his special report was false. That same day, Pitre was interviewed by Superintendent Timothy McConnell. In the interview Pitre recounted the events of the incident. In preparation for the interview, NOFD reviewed the video footage of the real time crime camera, which was taken from across the street of the fire station. The video footage does not display the incident but does show movements of an individual. In the interview, Pitre answered a wide range of questions about his conduct on June 14.

On August 7, NOFD received an enhanced version of the real-time camera video footage which allowed it to conclusively identify Pitre as the individual in the video. That same day, NOFD provided Pitre with a second Notification of a Formal Investigation, and once again interviewed him. During the interview, Superintendent McConnell’s questions revolved around Pitre’s conduct and movement throughout the fire station on the day of the incident but were essentially the same as the questions asked on July 8.

When NOFD terminated him, Pitre challenged the termination in the Louisiana Court of Appeals. The Court concluded that NOFD’s actions violated Louisiana’s statutory firefighter bill of rights, which requires that all disciplinary investigations be concluded within 60 days of the interrogation of the employee. The Bill of Rights also provides that “any discipline, demotion, dismissal or adverse action of any sort taken against a fire employee without complete compliance with the provisions of this Subpart is an absolute nullity.”

The Court found that “the definition of interrogation includes a formal interview of the employee. The events of the July 8, 2020 interview suggest that at the time of the interview Pitre was being interrogated. At the beginning of the July 8 interview Superintendent McConnell notified Pitre of all parties present in the interview room and NOFD recorded the interview. NOFD’s questioning heavily focused on Pitre’s actions as portrayed in the video foot­age. He was repeatedly asked the same questions throughout the interview, suggesting that NOFD believed there to be inconsistencies in his responses when compared to the real time crime camera video footage.

“A review of the record demonstrates that NOFD conducted an interrogation, not an initial inquiry. For instance, a written notification of the investigation was provided to Pitre and the inter­view was recorded. The circumstances surrounding the events of the July 8 interview support the contention that NOFD conducted more than an initial inquiry into Pitre’s misconduct, and the true nature of NOFD’s actions on that date can be defined as an interrogation.”

As NOFD did not complete its investigation within 60 days of July 8, the Court found that Pitre’s termination was null and void.

Pitre v. Department of Fire, 2022 WL 1165491 (La. App. 2022).

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