A recent court settlement in an IAFF Guardian Policy case provided full, make-whole relief to Stratmoor Hills, CO Local 4955 President Brad Aragon who, because of his union leadership role, had been terminated by the Stratmoor Hills Fire Protection District and its Board of Directors.
The fire department is a fire district located near Colorado Springs, Colorado, and is governed by an elected five-member Board of Directors. One of the current Board members, Kathy Corcoran, is also President Aragon’s mother.
At the time of his termination, Brad Aragon was a Captain. During his 10 years of employment, he had never been suspended or otherwise disciplined.
In the past five years, the District has had five fire chiefs. Because of the high turnover in personnel, as well as other concerns, Stratmoor Hill fire fighters began forming a union.
On November 7, 2013, Aragon sent the Board a letter stating that the fire fighters had organized as an affiliate of the IAFF. He explained that by forming the local, the members would gain educational, training and safety opportunities. The letter further stated that “[o]ur goal is to use these opportunities to help improve and grow this department in a positive direction,” noting that the local planned to have a representative at each Board meeting to address any questions from the District.
Two weeks later, at the Board’s monthly public meeting, Board Chair Duane Skupa and other Board members interrogated Aragon about the formation of the union and why the Board had not been briefed and given the opportunity to approve the establishment of the local. Aragon held his ground, pointing out that employees have the right to establish and belong to the local. He also indicated that, under Colorado’s new collective bargaining law, the local would be able to meet and confer with the District. Aragon also mentioned that the local’s affiliation with the IAFF would allow members to participate in charitable efforts such as Fill-the-Boot for MDA.
Not satisfied with Aragon’s responses, the Board maintained that he had disobeyed its orders to inform the Board prior to organizing the union, and that he had “a problem with authority.” Director Ed Singleton made a motion to immediately terminate Aragon, which was seconded by Director Robert Colgrove.
President Aragon asked the Board if he was being terminated because he organized the local. A Board member responded that he was being fired for not following orders. According to the minutes of the meeting, Aragon requested a specific reason for his termination, and Director Colgrove stated that Colorado is an “at will” state and that the District did not have to give a reason. The Board then voted 4-0 to terminate Aragon, with his mother abstaining. President Aragon was immediately escorted to his locker and directed to clean out his personal belongings.
Under the IAFF Guardian Policy, IAFF General Counsel Tom Woodley argued that Aragon’s discharge violated his rights of free association and free speech safeguarded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Colorado Constitution. In addition, Aragon had valid claims for violations of the new state bargaining law, which prohibits retaliation against a fire fighters for engaging in union activities and participating in the political process of their public employers.
General President Harold Schaitberger says, “This was an egregious situation where one of our affiliate leaders was fired at an open, public meeting because he stepped forward to organize and lead an IAFF affiliate. This is a clear example of a case that justifies support and representation under our Guardian Policy.”
A court action was filed in federal district court in Denver against the District and the four members of the Board of Directors who voted to discharge Aragon. The Complaint called for enforcing Aragon’s constitutional and legal rights and securing his reinstatement, with backpay, lost benefits and other relief.
The District and its directors, through their attorney, contacted IAFF General Counsel Woodley expressing an interest in settling the suit. After several rounds of negotiations, the two sides reached a favorable settlement pursuant to which Local 4955 President Aragon was reinstated to his Captain’s job effective May 29, 2014, with all his rights and benefits restored. In addition, he received full backpay for all lost wages and benefits in the amount of $27,032, plus $15,000 in supplemental damages.
The District’s personnel records have also been expunged of any reference to his discharge. Significantly, the settlement agreement contained a broad no-retaliation clause protecting him from adverse action in the future for the exercise of his rights.
Prior to reaching a settlement, it was learned that the District’s Board of Directors had drafted a nepotism policy that — undoubtedly — they were planning to use the policy to fire Aragon upon his return to work as his mother still sits on the Board. The settlement arrangement was modified to provide that such a policy, if adopted, would have no application to Aragon.
Further, the settlement included a recovery of full attorneys’ fees and litigation expenses, paid by the District. Lastly, the settlement agreement was incorporated into a Court Order and Judgment, enabling President Aragon to return to court for enforcement in the event the District or its Directors violate the terms of the settlement.
“This is what our union is all about,” says IAFF 9th District Vice President Ray Rahne. Standing together and providing mutual support when one of our local leaders is the subject of illegal retaliation.”
Aragon says, “I could not be more grateful to the IAFF for its representation, and having my back. Our local will now begin the meet and confer process.”