BOSTON — Rockland’s only Black firefighter filed his appeal of a 30-day suspension on time, even though it was received by the state’s civil service commission without a postmark, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled last week.
The Civil Service Commission overturned the suspension of Lt. Craig Erickson in 2018, saying the town did not have enough evidence to suspend him, which led to the appeal on timeliness grounds.
Civil Service Commission Chairman Christopher Bowman said in the decision that it was a “stark and troubling example of disparate treatment” for a firefighter whose son served on the select board and on the fire station building committee to face no discipline for insubordination.
Rockland initially appealed the civil service decision to the superior court on the grounds that Erickson’s appeal was not filed on time. The judge in that case found it was.
The town then went to the appeals court which, again, held that Erickson had filed his appeal within the 10-day deadline and that the Civil Service Commission could get its own rules of how late to accept appeals when a postmark is missing.
Erickson said in a telephone interview that the appeal was frivilous and cost the town an estimated $80,000.
In a separate case, stemming from when the town fired Erickson in 2017, the Civil Service Commission ordered Erickson be reinstated after finding that he violated the sick leave policy but did not deserve to be fired, instead offering a 90-day suspension and a demotion.
September 2020:Rockland appeals reinstatement of firefighter
The town appealed that decision, although litigation had been stayed pending the appeals court decision decided last week. A judge ordered Erickson reinstated pending the appeal.
Erickson is also suing the town in federal court for discrimination, saying his firing was the result of years of discrimination at the department, in part because he is Black and in part because he filed a complaint about another firefighter’s eligibility for a promotion.
In a federal court filing, Erickson and the town said mediation in that case was unsuccessful but a new attempt, after the appeals court decision was rendered, would likely lead to “more productive mediation in the near future.”
Erickson said in the interview that decision “is going to smash the town of Rockland’s strategy to smithereens.”
The background of the case
The 30-day suspension was the result of a mutual aid call from Abington in November 2016, according to court filings. Erickson, a 30-year veteran of the department, was on duty as the senior officer in command. Erickson, who had been ordered not to respond to Abington calls because of an earlier incident, told another firefighter to respond in his place.
The firefighter, who is not named in the decision, refused and instead argued with Erickson about who was supposed to respond.
The fire engine left five minutes after the call came in and Fire Chief Scott Duffey ordered two investigations. Former town administrator Allan Chiocca ordered the 30-day suspension.
In tossing out the suspension, the commission said it had been based on a hearing that included three firefighters who could not have heard Erickson’s order to his subordinate and excluded the two firefighters who did, including the subordinate himself. The commissioner, Christopher C. Bowman, said in the charge that Erickson showed an “eyebrow-raising” lack of leadership.
Reach reporter Wheeler Cowperthwaite at firstname.lastname@example.org.