By Bob Uphues
Four Riverside firefighters, including three members of its command staff, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on Tuesday, asking the court to reverse disciplinary measures taken against them in March and April by Fire Chief Spencer Kimura.
Those named as the plaintiffs in the suit are Lt. Thomas Bensfield, Lt. William Ruska, Lt. Ray Williamson and Firefighter A.J. Ruska. All are paid-on-call firefighters, meaning they respond to incidents when they are needed. Riverside also staffs its north fire station on weekdays with paid-on-call firefighters who are available.
The attorney representing the firefighters is Patrick Walsh, who won a $350,000 settlement from the village of Riverside last year for former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who was fired as chief in 2011.
According to Walsh, the firefighters were being unfairly targeted by Kimura. Since the village's actions against Mulligan, the fire department has split into factions. Supporters of Mulligan, said Walsh, are being singled out.
"They're being hunted," Walsh said. "There's no doubt about it."
Walsh said that the lawsuit filed Tuesday will be amended to include a First Amendment claim, addressing concerns of political association.
The complaint filed Tuesday calls Kimura's disciplinary decisions "arbitrary and capricious," claiming that Kimura disregarded the departments procedures, failed to allow the firefighters their right to an attorney, treated the firefighters unfairly compared to others in the department and improperly disciplined the firefighters for actions that occurred while all were off duty.
Reached Wednesday morning, Kimura and Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying they hadn't seen it yet.
Kimura's decision to discipline the firefighters stemmed from an incident that occurred at a North Riverside tavern after the department's Christmas party on Dec. 14, 2013.
Several Riverside firefighters were at the Sweet Spot, 2531 Desplaines Ave., at about 11:45 p.m. that night. A Riverside firefighter, who is not a party to the lawsuit against Kimura, reportedly inappropriately touched a female patron at the bar.
A friend of the woman, an off-duty Cicero police officer, reportedly confronted the firefighter and an altercation ensued, ending when the firefighter allegedly punched the off-duty police officer in the head.
According to a police report filed in the wake of the incident, the firefighter was reportedly intoxicated. The off-duty police officer was not injured and refused to file charges against the firefighter.
However, the firefighter who allegedly punched the off-duty police officer was later fired by Kimura after a disciplinary hearing. Later, according to Walsh, that firefighter was rehired.
Scalera would not confirm or deny whether that firefighter had been fired and later rehired.
Kimura suspended William Ruska, Williamson and Bensfield for three days, stating that all three failed to "issue discipline to a subordinate" by not intervening in the incident at the bar.
According to Kimura's disciplinary orders, the command-staff officers violated a policy laid out in the Riverside Fire Department employee manual that states they may be disciplined for failing "to take the necessary and appropriate steps to discipline a subordinate employee when the conduct of the subordinate employee require [sic] such action."
The lawsuit claims William Ruska was not in the bar at the time of the incident.
A.J. Ruska received harsher discipline from Kimura. He was found in violation of the department's code of conduct governing behavior unbecoming a Riverside firefighter. And because of a previous disciplinary measure taken against him by the chief in 2013, A.J. Ruska was slapped with a 21-day suspension and a "last-chance" warning.
The lawsuit argues that the code of conduct is "unconstitutionally vague" and that firefighters were forced to sign an acknowledgment of the code or face termination in August 2012.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Walsh said that he found Kimura's ruling — that command staff officers didn't act to discipline their subordinate in the bar while off duty — ironic, given the village's decision to remove Mulligan as chief after he'd been accused of drinking while on duty.
"Now they want to discipline them for not working while drinking," Walsh said.