AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – The Amarillo Professional Firefighters Local 542 said on Wednesday that firefighters claimed a win in a six-year workplace dispute over the civil service status of employees in the Amarillo Fire Marshal’s office.
According to the association, the Texas Supreme Court denied an appeal from the City of Amarillo that focused on a lower court decision holding that firefighter positions in the city’s fire marshal’s office should be subject to civil service classification under Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code.
How did this start?
The dispute began in 2015, according to the association, when Amarillo firefighters Nathan Sloan Nurek and Brandon Stennett alleged they were passed over for promotions in violation of state law. This became the case “City of Amarillo, Texas v. Nathan Sloan Nurek and Michael Brandon Stennett,” in the Court of Appeals, Seventh District of Texas at Amarillo, on appeal from County Court of Law No. 2, Potter County, Texas, Trial Court No. 105821-2.
What does the law say?
As described in the Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 143 is intended “to secure efficient fire and police departments composed of capable personnel who are free from political influence and who have permanent employment tenure as public servants.” Members of the fire department defined as firefighters under Chapter 143 included employees whose positions require “substantial knowledge of fire fighting.” such as those involved in:
- Fire suppression
- Fire prevention
- Fire training
- Fire safety education
- Fire maintenance
- Fire communications
- Fire medical emergency technology
- Fire photography
- Fire administration
- Fire arson investigation
The code lists guidelines for things such as who can be described as firefighters or police officers, how those people can get their qualifications and positions, and how promotions for those people should be handled in different-sized municipalities throughout the state. For instance, the code discusses employees of municipalities with a population of 150,000 or more and with a governing body of five or fewer members, such as Amarillo, in section 143.0051 and details guidelines for how promotions should be processed and whether or not certain employees qualify as civil servants.
As part of that code, governing bodies and local civil service commissions of covered municipalities are required to classify “fire fighters” as civil service employees and to hire and promote those people based on objective measures such as competitive examinations.
As noted in court documents filed with the case, the City of Amarillo has classified Fire Department employees as “fire fighters” under a more narrow definition; the people who work 24-hour shifts at fire stations and respond to emergencies in fire equipment. However, non-classified civilians have been used to staff the Amarillo Fire Marshal’s Office, which includes employees who perform duties that Chapter 143 defines as fire fighting. Even after the fire marshal’s office was combined with the fire department in 1989, the fire marshal’s office positions were not classified and employees were not hired in line with the code.
What happened with the case?
According to the firefighters association, the City of Amarillo won the initial round of the law proceedings. However, when the city sought attorney’s fees from the firefighters, the Court of Appeals of the Seventh District of Texas at Amarillo reversed the city’s win.
According to court documents available in the Texas Supreme Court case repository, the court ruled in August 2020 that while the fire marshal’s office positions in Amarillo fell within the Civil Service Act’s definition of “fire fighter” positions, Stennett’s “recovery and requested relief are barred by the application of laches, limitation, and estoppel.”
The initial trial court findings in October 2020, according to court documents, concluded that the City of Amarillo using non-classified employees to staff the fire marshal’s office “would be more satisfactory to the public,” “was motivated by good faith,” and “was based on more than monetary savings.”
However, during the subsequent appeals process, the appeals court reversed the rulings in the City of Amarillo’s favor, affirming that the fire marshal’s office positions were to be considered civil servants but then also saying that the city did not meet its evidentiary burdens for the claims that the decisions were based in good faith, public opinion, or for more than budgetary reasons.
After the city’s win was reversed, the city appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. That resulted, as noted by the firefighters association, in the most recent update in which the court denied the appeal and held that firefighter positions in the Amarillo Fire Marshal’s office are considered civil servants under the Texas Local Government Code.
What does this mean?
According to Todd Peden, president of the Amarillo Professional Firefighters Association, the ruling, “will help formalize this specific fire service expertise within the Amarillo Fire Department.”
“Amarillo firefighters deliver excellent service, we’re good stewards of city resources, and we give back to the community,” Peden continued, “The Texas Supreme Court’s denial of the city’s appeal allows us to refocus on our commitments to the community and further strengthen the fire department. We are hopeful the city will resolve this issue without requiring more litigation. We’re ready to help find a better path forward.”
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