Monday, August 23, 2021
VoxPopuli made a public records request and obtained a former Ocoee firefighter’s disciplinary files from a previous job. Was that an accident … or retaliation?
This story has been updated to reflect that Human Resources Specialist Stephanie Wilson was directly asked why I was sent the Kissimmee files and that she suggested I ask the city clerk.
A couple of weeks ago, as part of its ongoing series on the Ocoee Fire Department, VoxPopuli submitted a public records request to the city clerk for the employment file of former Ocoee firefighter Allen Savoie, who worked for the department from November 2018 to August 2019.
The file included one good three-month evaluation and no disciplinary reports. That was it for nine months of employment. But the file also included additional documents: disciplinary reports from Savoie’s previous position as a firefighter for the city of Kissimmee.
That struck me as odd. It struck Mark Peters, a labor and employment attorney who VoxPopuli tapped for an expert opinion, as odd too.
“I can’t think of a reason why an employer would have employment records of another employer,” said Peters, a partner on the management side at Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis in Nashville. “It strikes me as very unusual and out of the norm. That doesn’t mean there’s not a legitimate explanation for it, but it does seem very unusual.”
So, why did Savoie’s Ocoee file come with Kissimmee records? And why was Ocoee’s Human Resources Department apparently so eager to share them?
It might be pure coincidence, but last year Savoie filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Ocoee, maintaining that he’d been fired for his union activities. Savoie had been working to get the union’s share of 175 supplemental pension money, which had been signed over to the city during the 2014-2017 contract negotiations, returned to the union.
Savoie had even gone so far as to send a memo to the Florida Department of Management Services on Aug. 19, 2019, to request that the 175 money be frozen until an agreement between the city and union could be reached — something that “obviously is a significant impact on us,” Fisher Phillips attorney Jeffrey Mandel, who represented the city against Savoie’s lawsuit, told commissioners during a private city commission meeting held Sept. 23, 2020 to discuss the lawsuit, according to a meeting transcript.
On Aug. 23, five days after Savoie sent his memo, he was fired. That same day, he was elected union president.
The fire department’s official reason for the firing was that Savoie failed to complete his one-year probationary period. The real reason, according to the private meeting transcript, was that Savoie had allegedly lied about problems in Kissimmee during his initial job interview with Ocoee Fire Chief John Miller. There were also a couple of verbal reprimands about Savoie speaking his mind about firefighter safety during training sessions and a report about driving a fire truck he hired out for children’s birthday parties to work.
Here’s what Mandel said during that private city commission meeting, according to the transcript:
“So we say we questioned him during the initial interview regarding whether or not he had any prior discipline, but the notes we have from the interview don’t reflect that at all. With respect to the issue of the fire truck, and you know, him being insubordinate, again we say it happened and we say it happened and we say there was paper generated. Where is that paper? And moreover if it was such a bad offense that it resulted in his termination from employment, how is it that no one ever followed up with it?”
During that private city commission meeting, Mandel encouraged the commissioners to settle the lawsuit “because of our lack of any documentation to support any of the claims we have in this case.”
The city eventually settled with Savoie last year for $97,500, according to the transcript of another private city commission meeting held a month later, on Oct. 20, 2020. But city commissioners were livid at the prospect of having to pay out a dime, with Mayor Rusty Johnson railing at the fire department's "stupidity" and comparing Savoie's lawsuit to a "threat with a gun held up against our head," according to the Sept. 23 transcript. Johnson flatly refused to vote for any settlement.
Johnson fumed: “This is going to have other effects. I’m going to tell you now, the union’s not going to give up. When you give in on this, they’re going to keep after you for the union contract, and we’re fighting for three years or two and a half years and that’s where they’re going to say, Hey, they’ll settle with us, let’s just keep pushing.”
To coax the commissioners to settle and not run the risk of an even higher payoff or that Savoie might get reinstated as an Ocoee firefighter "in which case he's going to be Teflon," Mandel warned in the Sept. 23 transcript, he shared a summary of the Kissimmee file with the commissioners.
Mandel apparently focused mainly on a specific incident in which Savoie responded to a call for a man who had passed out in his laundry room.
“Once he got out onto the call, the gentleman had awoken and was breathing okay, and Savoie decided he was not going to provide any treatment to the gentleman at all,” Mandel told the commission.
The next morning, the man died after going into cardiac arrest. According to the transcript, the man's sister, who had called 911, said that the unit that had been there the night before — Savoie’s unit — hadn’t even taken her brother’s vitals.
Commissioner Larry Brinson, who represents District 1, called the Kissimmee file a “smoking gun,” according to the Sept. 23 meeting transcript. He wanted to know if Mandel had any “tricks” for entering it into the hearing. Mandel replied that he was going to try to “back door it.”
“…it really burns me that this person was employed by the city,” said District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen, according to the transcript.
Understandable. But it's not the whole story. What the Ocoee City Commission apparently didn’t hear was that the gentleman in question had refused treatment, had refused to allow Savoie to take his vitals, had refused to go to the hospital and had sent the paramedics away, according to someone familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to talk to the media. Instead, commissioners were left with the impression that Savoie was disciplined for dereliction of care.
A subsequent investigation by the Kissimmee Fire Department, however, showed that Savoie had been disciplined for incorrectly filling out paperwork, coding the interaction as “no patient” rather than “patient refusal” — not for withholding medical treatment.
Mandel told me in an email that the settlement reached with Savoie included language that expunged “termination” from his Ocoee records and replaced it with “voluntarily resigned.” In other words, as far as Ocoee was concerned, Savoie left on his own and on good terms. Which brings me back to my request for his employee file — and the stack of disciplinary forms from Kissimmee that filled my inbox.
An email sent to Ocoee Human Resources Director Gene Williford and Human Resources Specialist Stephanie Wilson, asking why the Kissimmee documents were mixed in with the Ocoee file that I got, went unanswered. I cornered Wilson, after a collective bargaining session, to ask again, and she dodged, saying, "That's a question for the city clerk."
So I emailed Mandel to ask him why Kissimmee documents were in a former Ocoee employee’s file.
Mandel assured me in an email that the Kissimmee files “are not part of [Savoie’s] personnel file,” and chalked the whole thing up to a simple “miscommunication.”
“Your records request as I understood it included the Kissimmee documents,” Mandel’s email continued. “As I got those records on behalf of the City, they are technically public record. As such, I provided them to the City for them to provide to you. If I misunderstood your request, I apologize. And, if what was sent to you made it seem like the Kissimmee documents are part of his personnel file, that was a miscommunication. They are not.”
But, seriously, how do you misconstrue what I asked for in my public records request:
"When you get a moment, please forward me all employment evaluations and all disciplinary reports related to Allen Savoie's employment with the Ocoee Fire Department, November 2018-August 2019.”
If one back door doesn’t work, you try another one.
I provided them to the City for them to provide to you.
Who’s to say a future potential employer, doing their own due diligence on Savoie’s time in Ocoee — where he’d only received good evaluations during nine months of employment — wouldn’t be provided the Kissimmee documents as well?
Savoie, now working as a firefighter/paramedic in Titusville, told VoxPopuli via text message that this whole situation feels retaliatory. “Communication was by written email so you can’t say this was a ‘miscommunication.’” He added that his International Association of Fire Fighters lawyer is sending a cease-and-desist letter to Ocoee to ensure Kissimmee documents don’t get sent out with his Ocoee personnel file again.
“I’m truly disappointed with the city of Ocoee’s management. The way they treat their employees and waste taxpayers’ money is unethical,” Savoie said.