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Firefighter’s Facebook insults and threats directed at police department justified his termination

April 17th, 2015  |  David Stephanides

A firefighter who took great offense at the arrest of his wife and promised to the police to “smear this [expletive] all over the place,” a promise he kept in several Facebook postings that disparaged the arresting officer, his supervisor, and the police department generally, was justifiably terminated, an arbitrator ruled. Among the comments posted to Facebook were various egregious insults (“these morons,” “you incompetent Barney Fife sob,” “corrupt desk jockey”) and threats (“I’m coming to make you miserable,” “I’ll take your head,” “I don’t know where you live and don’t have your number…but I will.”) (The City of Ada, Oklahoma and IAF, Local 2298, AFL-CIO/CLC. Dec. 19, 2014. M. Zane Lumbley, Arbitrator).

It all started when the firefighter’s wife, who was a passenger in a vehicle, notified her husband that the police had just stopped her and the driver for an illegal turn. The officer then administered field sobriety tests to both occupants of the car, which they failed. The husband arrived at the scene and unsuccessfully urged the officer the let him take his wife home. Both occupants of the car were then arrested, the wife for public intoxication. The husband arrived at the booking station and escalated his efforts, going to the officer’s supervisor to plead for her release. When that failed, he called the officer profane names, physically threatened him, and made known his general unhappiness with police department operations.

At this point, the situation blew up on the firefighter. The police arrested him for the threats, and his employer terminated him for numerous instances of workplace harassment. The firefighter filed a grievance contesting the termination on the ground that the employer violated his due process rights, particularly by failing to obtain his side of the story before making the termination decision and disparate treatment.

The arbitrator denied the grievance. No evidence existed that the officer was doing anything other than carrying out his duties. The firefighter’s response during the arrest and booking were, by themselves, sufficient to justify discipline. As for the Facebook postings, the firefighter had to know that he was jeopardizing his job when he made them. (in fact, he testified that he was willing to sacrifice his job to engage in the campaign). The threats were of particular concern; the fact that he never carried them out was irrelevant. The firefighter’s Facebook posts were egregious, they clearly constituted workplace harassment, and they clearly damaged his working relationship with the police department.

As for the due process charge, the termination decision was not reached prior to the investigation. During the investigation, the firefighter actually rebuffed efforts to discuss the matter. Although the employer could have been more forthcoming in responding to union requests for information, the delays caused no prejudice. Also, no disparate treatment occurred because the person the union offered as a comparison was not a union member. Disparate treatment required a comparison between similarly situated employees. For all of those reasons, the employer had just cause to terminate the firefighter.