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Court News Ohio

Sixth District: Township Fire Chief Dismissal Upheld on Appeal

After a common pleas court reinstated a Northwest Ohio township’s fire chief fired by trustees for allowing a non-firefighter to assist the department, a court of appeals has upheld the original dismissal.

The Sixth District Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Feb. 6 that Harold Stanton was properly fired by the Jerusalem Township Board of Trustees in March 2013. Stanton served five years as fire chief of the township of 3,100 residents just outside of Toledo, close to Maumee State Park.

Stanton was warned by the township not to allow a township resident, Jim Gray, to assist the department with fire and emergency situations because Gray was not a firefighter and the trustees raised liability concerns. Gray was at a large fire in early 2013, but Stanton said he was not aware Gray was there. The trustees fired Stanton, who appealed the decision through an administrative process, and also filed a federal lawsuit against the township arguing the trustees violated his constitutional rights in the termination process.

In August 2013, a Lucas County Common Pleas Court heard Stanton’s appeal of his termination and reinstated him to the position with back pay and benefits. The trial court found that the trustees violated Ohio Revised Code 505.38, which sets the process for appointing and removing fire chiefs, when it removed Stanton.

Writing for the Sixth District, Judge Arlene Singer noted the trial court relied on a provision of R.C. 505.38 requiring the board of trustees to designate the chief or a private citizen to investigate the conduct and prepare charges for removal. Since the township did not use the chief or a private citizen to investigate Stanton, the trial court found it violated the code. Additionally, the trial court indicated the trustees did not follow the township’s personnel policies manual, specifically using progressive discipline that would have called for sanctions other than removal, before terminating Stanton.

Judge Singer said Stanton did not raise the issue of the private citizen investigation during his administrative appeal of his firing. He only pointed to it in a footnote in his brief to the common pleas court, and that barred the trial court from considering the matter.

“We find that the trial court erred in considering the issue, much less using it as one of the reasons to vacate the decision of the trustees,” she wrote.

The appeals court also indicated the personnel policies made the use of progressive discipline optional and not mandatory, so there was no error by the trustees for not abiding by the policy.

“For the above reasons, we conclude the trial court’s determination that the trustees’ termination process was procedurally defective was not supported by a preponderance of reliable, probative or substantial evidence,” Judge Singer wrote.

Judges Mark L. Pietrykowski and James D. Jensen concurred in the decision.

Stanton v. Jerusalem Twp., 2015-Ohio-463
Civil Appeal From: Lucas County Court of Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Feb. 6, 2015

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