Retired Westport firefighter files lawsuit against town to recoup lost pension wages
Published 6:12 pm, Thursday, November 18, 2010
A former Westport firefighter, who has been embroiled in a lengthy battle with the town's Pension Board, filed a federal lawsuit against the town last Friday.
Eric Fine, a 51-year-old Shelton resident, is suing for compensatory damages of not less than $875,000, plus punitive damages and attorney's fees in a claim that the town reduced his pension unfairly based on a ruling by an unconstitutional arbitration proceeding.
Fine had been employed with the town as a firefighter from 1982 to June 2007, when he took a non-firefighter role in the department. After Fine retired in April 2008, amidst charges that he had misused fire union credit cards, the town originally included the nine months spent in his role as a technical specialist. But following an arbitration ruling from the State, the town reversed its decision and reduced the pension.
"Mr. Fine retired after more than 26 years with the Westport Fire Department in April 2008 and was awarded a pension, which effective as of July 2010, was to pay him $5,642.92 per month. That pension was voted unanimously by the Westport Fire Pension Board," Peter Nolin, Fine's Stamford-based attorney, said in a statement Tuesday.
Following that vote, the Westport Firefighters Union, the town and the pension board began a grievance and arbitration process with the State. After the State made a recommendation in February, the town board ruled 5-1 in September to reduce Fine's pension to $3,545.54 per month, an annual reduction of $25,300, according to Nolin. That ruling was based on a recommendation by the state. Only Fire Chief Christopher Ackley voted against the reduction.
Fine retired on April 1, 2008. Around the same time, the town's fire union alleged that Fine had embezzled money while serving as its treasurer. In Nov. 2008 Fine pled guilty to multiple fourth-degree larceny charges. He was given a three-year suspended prison term and placed on probation for three years. He was also ordered to pay $7,158 in restitution, according to court documents.
The issue now stems out of a job shift that Fine made in 2007. Fine became the town's "chief specialist," in June 2007, a new position created to supervise civilian dispatchers. The new "exempt, non-union position," paid $96,365 per year, according to the lawsuit. However, the job also required the employee to have at least five years firefighting experience and be able to maintain firefighting skills. It was also expected to be eligible for the Pension Fund. The lawsuit alleges that Fine made "an additional $7,036 in contributions," to the Pension Fund.
The town originally granted Fine a full pension, including the time spent in the new role, but after an appeal by the union, reconsidered that action.
After a hearing was conducted by the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration, the pension board decided to reduce the pension to what it would have been in June 2007, when Fine was still a firefighter.
The lawsuit alleges that Fine was not a participant in the State arbitration board's hearing.
"Mr. Fine was not permitted to participate in the grievance or arbitration and therefore alleges that the reduction in his pension was accomplished in violation of his constitutional due process rights," stated Nolin.
The lawsuit names the town, the pension board and the five members of the town's pension board that voted to reduce Fine's pension: Fire Pension Board Chairman Helen Garten, First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, town Finance Director John Kondub, fire union representative Ron Wojnoski and Town Clerk Patricia Strauss.
It also names the Westport Firefighters Local 1081 International Association of Firefighters union and its president, Gary Marks, "for tortious interference with his contractual relations with the Town and the Pension Board," Nolin said.
Westport town attorney Ira Bloom chose not to comment on the lawsuit when contacted by phone on Tuesday afternoon.