DRACUT — The American Arbitration Association Voluntary Labor Tribunal has found that the town of Dracut violated a collective bargaining agreement when it directed a firefighter to undergo a psychological evaluation as a condition of continued employment.
It found the grievance filed by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2586 to be sustained.
Justin George — a well-known Dracut firefighter and National Guard medic — is the grievant, according to the 45-page ruling he provided to The Sun.
“The Town shall reinstate Mr. George to his position as a Dracut firefighter within two weeks of this Decision,” states the Aug. 27 ruling, a matter of arbitration between IAFF Local 2586 & the town of Dracut. “No monetary relief is awarded.”
The ruling is the latest development in the battle between the town and George since he was placed on paid administrative leave over a year ago, on Aug. 2, 2018. Town Manager Jim Duggan had notified George then that the firefighter had “shown uncharacteristic behavior not exhibited during his previous seven years with the Fire Department.” Duggan’s letter stated that George would remain on leave pending results of a fitness-for-duty examination. The firefighter refused to take the exam.
According to the AAA, the town must have a legitimate reason behind having firefighters submit to a fitness-for-duty exam, and it must be directly related to the firefighter’s ability to perform the duties of he position.
“In the present case, the Town’s decision to direct Mr. George to have a psychological examination was directly related to Mr. George’s advocacy on the issue of military pay for employees of the Town of Dracut, which is not a legitimate reason to require an employee to submit to a psychological examination as a condition of continued employment,” the AAA ruling reads. “Moreover, the evidence demonstrates that Mr. George was capably performing the duties of the position, and was already receiving treatment for his PTSD from the Veterans Administration.”
George last fall was behind a controversial Town Meeting article that sought to adopt Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 33, Section 59, under which public employees are fully paid while they are fulfilling their military service obligations through drills and training. Town Meeting rejected the article, with 146 against and 112 in favor. George told The Sun he was harassed by both Duggan and Fire Chief David Brouillette and was placed on paid administrative leave because he continued to pursue the Town Meeting article. Duggan flatly denied the allegation and said George’s behavior and performance were completely separate from the article.
George, in an emailed statement over the weekend, said he exhausted all options to fix the issue.
“Filed harassment claim, Superior Court, EEOC, Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Department of Justice, Arbitration, all ruled in my favor. And STILL nobody wants to take responsibility,” George wrote in a Sunday email to a Sun reporter. “Nobody is being held accountable. Nothing has changed. My career, name, and reputation are destroyed. The emotional strain the town put me and more importantly my family through is disgusting.”
Duggan, in an email Monday, wrote: “Given the totality of the circumstances, we believed the actions taken were not unreasonable and were in the best interests of the Town and Mr. George. The court directed the parties to arbitration. We did so and the decision speaks for itself. The issue has been addressed and resolved.”
Duggan went on to say that all other matters filed by George remain pending and the Town has responded accordingly.
“I cannot and will not comment on Mr. George’s subjective feelings, but I believe it would suffice to say that it is my hope that personal considerations be left behind and that we move forward,” Duggan’s email read.
Peter McQuillan, the attorney representing the town of Dracut in this matter, declined to comment Monday.
“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” said Leo McMahon, union president of the IAFF Local 2586 and a longtime Dracut firefighter. “I’m really not surprised by the outcome. This has been an arduous more than 13 months for Justin, his family, for the union. It’s really been a difficult time. The town has dragged this out.”
McMahon said you could clearly see from the finding that the “town deliberately acted to try and retaliate” against Justin for exercising his First Amendment rights. He added that it doesn’t seem as if the Board of Selectmen is very concerned about how George’s career has been tarnished by these developments.
Selectmen Chair Jesse Forcier, on the ruling, said it’s a personnel matter. “The Board of Selectmen shouldn’t be commenting on it,” he said.
In response to McMahon’s comments on the BOS, Forcier said: “As a selectman I care about the health and wellbeing of every town employee.”
Earlier this summer, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that the town discriminated against George because of his disability. The ruling in the case of Justin George vs. Town of Dracut was addressed to the town: “Attn: James Duggan, Town Manager.”
Last year, George accused Duggan and Fire Chief David Brouillette of harassing him. Duggan flatly denied the allegation. The firefighter also accused Brouillette of singling him out when he said Brouillette began looking into any pay code issues with his military unit, but didn’t do the same for another firefighter-reservist.
In an email last fall to a Sun reporter, Brouillette said his responsibility to taxpayers was to maintain an efficient operation regarding fire service to the town. “As a Veteran of the United States Military, I fully support anyone who has served this great Nation. My duties, however require that I look at this issue as the Head of the Fire Department not from an emotional point of view or as a fellow veteran,” Brouillette’s statement read. “The taxpayers of this Community deserve to know what the ramifications of how any change to the By-Law, could possible (sic) effect department operations. I am grateful for the ongoing support the community has and continues to have for the men and women of the Dracut Fire Department.”
George on Sunday wrote that he “can’t keep trying to reason with unreasonable people.” He said he was tired.
“So, I’ve asked my attorney to file suit on the town and anyone that participated in illegal acts or violations in Federal Court,” he added. “Unfortunately the taxpayers of Dracut are going to have to pay for the actions and inactions of ‘leadership’ in this town, but I give up. I need to take care of me and my family and repair what’s been done.”