Marquis Solomon’s suit says he was fired for union involvement

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A former Salisbury Fire Department captain has filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired for his involvement in a union.
Marquis Solomon’s complaint names the city, City Manager Doug Paris and Fire Chief Bob Parnell, and seeks damages for wrongful termination, breach of contract, and violation of constitutional rights.
The city says Solomon’s firing was related to concerns about his judgment and his relationship with a fellow employee, but the city won’t provide a copy of the policy that prohibits such relationships.
Solomon, who was a district captain for two months, filed the suit Feb. 25 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
In the suit, Solomon — who was hired Nov. 6 and began employment Dec. 1 — says he was fired Jan. 17 after he joined and supported a fire department labor union. The city says in a termination letter the decision to fire Solomon was “related to concerns of your judgment as a high level supervisor.”
The letter also says “supervisors are held to a high standard” and that the decision is also “related to Solomon’s relationship with a fellow city employee.” The suit does not name that person, but says the employee does not work in the fire department and is not a subordinate or superior to Solomon.
The Post twice asked city spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann for a copy of Salisbury’s policy regarding relationships between employees. In response to the first request, Hasselmann said she “couldn’t comment further” because the lawsuit is active. When a reporter clarified the request was not for comment, but for a city policy that should be public record, Hasselmann did not respond.
A Post reporter also made the same written request regarding the city’s policy to City Manager Doug Paris and Assistant City Manager Zack Kyle, but did not receive a response. City Attorney Rivers Lawther did not return a telephone call Monday requesting the same policy.
Prior to working with the Salisbury Fire Department, Solomon was a member of the Columbia, S.C., Fire Department, where he was a captain, EMT and lead recruiter. Solomon was also a curriculum developer for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is an adjunct faculty member at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. While with the Columbia Fire Department, Solomon was a member and president of the Columbia Firefighter’s Association Local 973, a labor union which was part of the International Association of Firefighters.
Solomon says in his lawsuit that when he signed a letter of employment, he spoke with Parnell and informed the chief he was a member of the International Association of Firefighters union. He continues to be a member of the union, the suit says.
On Jan. 9, Solomon met with a fellow Salisbury firefighter who had begun to organize a union within the fire department. During the meeting, Solomon learned members had submitted an application for a union charter. He told the union representative they should inform Parnell a union had formed.
The suit says Parnell met with Paris on Jan. 16 to discuss the union. The suit alleges Paris told Parnell he “must have a leadership issue with the Fire Department if a union was formed, a threat to the chief’s employment for allowing a union to form.” Also during this meeting, the suit says Paris and Parnell “confirmed and recommitted” an official city policy and decision that prohibited union representation of firefighters, and retaliated against any employees joining or supporting a union.
Parnell and Solomon met with firefighters Jan. 16 to discuss the “rumored” union formation. The meeting lasted an hour and Solomon says in his complaint Parnell tried to persuade them against forming a union, saying all unions do is take their money and that he would not tolerate the formation of a union.
Solomon met privately with Parnell after the staff meeting. According to Solomon, Parnell said if the union representative were in the room, he’d fire the representative. Solomon said in the suit that he offered to act as a liasion between the union and the department. He also offered to organize a meeting with the chief and the union representative.
The meeting was held the next day, on Jan. 17, and included Parnell, battalion chiefs David Morris and Chris Kepley, and Assistant City Manager Zack Kyle. The union representative, who was not named in the suit, informed the group the union had been awarded a charter. The International Association of Firefighters does not list an online charter for the Salisbury Fire Department and the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina does not have a public listing of its members.
Another meeting was held afterward with Paris, Kyle and Parnell that the lawsuit says lasted 45 minutes.
“Upon information and belief, Chief Parnell and the city manager decided to terminate the plaintiff’s employment in the city of Salisbury Fire Department for his membership in and support of a union,” the suit says.
Solomon referred comments to his attorney, Andrew Schwaba of Schwaba Law Firm in Charlotte. Schwaba said his client was a committed firefighter and was surprised by his termination. He said Solomon still doesn’t completely understand why he was fired.
“Although he was involved and supported the union, he attempted to do his job very well,” Schwaba said.
By the end of the day on Jan. 17, Solomon was informed by Parnell and Kyle that he was being fired over concerns about his judgment and his relationship with another employee.
Solomon said in the suit that he told Parnell on Jan. 14 that he’d begun a relationship with another employee. He said Parnell met with Zack Kyle and Human Resources Director Ruth Kennerly and later said the relationship was “no big deal.”
Solomon said Parnell congratulated him on the relationship. Solomon said he was never issued a warning about any disciplinary action he’d face over the relationship. Solomon said he was never given a copy of an employee handbook containing a policy prohibiting such relationships.
Solomon alleges the city began drafting a “relationship agreement” document in January that required employees to acknowledge potential conflicts that existed with relationships in the workplace. He maintains the document allowed them to continue with their relationship and as city employees.
He says in the lawsuit the document was in draft form and never part of any official city policy.
Solomon said he was never asked to sign such a relationship policy.
Shortly after he was terminated, Solomon said he was evicted from an apartment he was renting in the city-owned Plaza building.
Solomon further says his rights to freedom of speech to peaceably assemble were violated.
Patrick Flanagan of Cranfill, Sumner and Hartzog in Charlotte, declined to comment on the case, but did say he was representing the city, Paris and Parnell in the lawsuit.
Hasselmannn, the city spokeswoman, said the “allegations presented in Mr. Solomon’s lawsuit are false and will be addressed in the City’s filed response with the court system.” She provided a copy of the Jan. 17 termination letter the city issued to Solomon.
The brief letter, signed by Parnell, says Solomon’s probationary employment with the city fire department was terminated effective Jan. 17. The letter says Solomon’s probationary employment can end without cause and does not name the fellow employee with whom he was in a relationship. The letter also instructed Solomon to immediately turn in his city-issued equipment and supplies to the fire department.
Hasselmannn said the following statement regarding probationary employment is included in all city offer letters: “We emphasize that your employment with the City is ‘at will’ and neither this letter nor any other oral or written communication may be considered a contract of employment for any specific period of time.”
Solomon is seeking punitive and compensatory damages, and is also requesting a jury trial. The case was referred to mediation Feb. 26 and a summons was sent to all parties informing them Solomon had filed a lawsuit against them. The city of Salisbury has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.