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EMT sues city for failure to follow through with promised benefits

Oct 16, 2023

A first responder has filed a lawsuit against the city of Beaumont stating the city has not fulfilled its obligations nor provided he and fellow emergency medical personnel in their employ the rights promised to them when their positions shifted to fall under the purview of the Beaumont Fire Department.

Caleb Fenter, through attorney Taylor W. Miller of Reaud Morgan & Quinn LLP, on behalf of himself and Beaumont EMS field medics, filed suit naming the city and then-interim city manager Chris Boone on Aug. 19, requesting "declaratory relief regarding the rights, status and legal relationship between himself and the City of Beaumont and a Writ of Mandamus." He specifically requests to be sworn in as a civil service employee in order to receive the benefits and privileges that come with the designation, which the suit says was promised to EMS field medics when the city council approved the departmental transition in March 2021. Fenter is also suing for monetary relief up to $250,000.

According to the facts of the case as presented in the suit, Beaumont citizens voted to make the Beaumont Fire Department a civil service department in 1964, pursuant to the Civil Service Act (Texas Local Government Code 143). The EMS division was formed under the fire department but then, in the 1980s, became a part of the Public Health Department and was staffed with at-will civilian employees. When EMS rejoined the fire department through unanimous approval from the city council in March 2021, the suit argues that the medics should have then been classified – by legal definition – as civil service employees, specifically firefighters, and provided with the same protections as those previously designated.

Language in the Civil Service Act indicates that a fire department employee "whose primary duties are to provide emergency medical services for the municipality is considered to be a firefighter." It also requires "the classification of all firefighters." Fenter's suit says the city has not classified he and the other Beaumont EMS medics as firefighters, preventing them also from being classified as civil service employees and getting the additional benefits and protections associated with that classification. According to the Texas Attorney General's Office, citing the Civil Service Act, "’A city may not avoid placing firefighters within the civil service system by not’ appointing them in substantial compliance with Chapter 143.

The city responded to the lawsuit with an objection to the declaratory judgment and requested the case be dismissed.

"Defendant generally denies all and singular, the allegations of the Plaintiff's petition," the city stated in its answer, demanding "proof."

Firefighters employed by the city and already sworn in as civil servants support Fenter and team in the fight for their rights. In a letter to interim city manager Boone on June 27, preceding the filing of the lawsuit, Beaumont Professional Firefighters Local 399 President Jeffery Nesom advised the city to swear in their new team members as civil service employees for the benefit of all in the newly merged team of first responders.

"As you know, Beaumont is a civil-service city," Nesom wrote in response to Boone's request for the union's input. "This system was created by the Texas Legislature to help ensure that cities and fire department employees both are treated fairly… Texas civil service statutes provide protection for both the city and the employees in the form of clear procedures and laws for hiring, promotions, disciplinary actions… and so much more. The benefits and protections afforded by civil service status are valuable and expected by the best and brightest firefighters in Texas…

"As the fire department evolves, we also urge you to ensure that all employees are sworn employees. A tiered system would put Beaumont at a competitive disadvantage with other cities and departments at a time when the Texas fire service faces urgent staffing issues. Fire department morale also would be adversely affected. The small savings in employing non-sworn employees would be offset by turnover, increased training costs, and other problems...

"When we took on EMS with the merger, both sides worked to prevent pension problems. In the end, adding personnel to our department adds contributions into our pension fund, which works toward reducing our unfunded liability. If we are not bringing these firefighters on as sworn firefighters, our collaboration in further strengthening the pension fund and reducing unfunded liability would be impacted negatively."

In spite of that appeal and the potential negative impacts at the fire department as described by Nesom, Fenter says medics are still being hired as civilian personnel rather than sworn civil service employees, and tension is brewing at the department.

Beaumont Fire-EMS District Chief and Beaumont Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 399 Vice President Cody Hendon emailed correspondence to Fire Chief Earl White on Sept. 2, revealing a history of issues between management and personnel, with employees complaining of lax training of civilian employees and inequitable treatment.

In the letter, Hendon said he was concerned that a part-time civilian employee, who had worked in the city's EMS system about a year earlier, was not up-to-date on training and protocols. In the interim, the man worked "in other EMS systems," Hendon described, and had been exposed to their protocols. While Hendon said he was not questioning the man's competence, he did feel the part-time employee should have had to have a refresher course on the fire department's protocols.

"This instance speaks to the field medics’ historical complaints of their management not following their policies and choosing when and for whom to enforce them," Hendon concluded.

According to Fenter, what it boils down to is this: He and his fellow medics – who work daily to keep local community members alive and healthy, ministering to their charges while racing to get them to local hospitals for the treatments they so desperately need – want the rights and benefits they were promised when the city switched them over from the Health Department to the Fire Department. So far, he says, the city has failed to keep that promise.