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Paramedic ruling questioned

An attorney calls for a review of a ruling in the case of a paramedic who was accused of not responding to a 911 call.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published September 27, 2006


CLEARWATER - An attorney representing the city says an arbitrator "exceeded his authority" when he ruled the city would have to rehire a paramedic it fired last year and help him regain his medical certification in Pinellas County.

Tom Gonzalez, a Tampa attorney, has recommended the city ask a Circuit Court judge to review the arbitrator's decision that determined the city didn't follow due process when it fired paramedic Trevor Murray for not responding to a 911 call.

Murray and his paramedic partner, Mike Jones, were fired last year and lost their paramedics' licenses after they failed to leave the station for a 911 call from a woman who had called many times and often claimed rape.

"The only authority the arbitrator has is what's given to him in the contract," Gonzalez said during a phone interview. "The contract does not authorize the city to put back to work someone without the license needed, or back him to get his license back.

"In the 30 years I've been practicing, this is the first time I've ever had an arbitrator take on so much authority."

In a 35-page decision handed down on Sept. 15, federal arbitrator Martin O. Holland said Murray, a 10-year Clearwater paramedic, had to be rehired because he was denied basic notions of fairness and due process. The report said that, among other things, fire Chief Jamie Geer possibly withheld a favorable report and that the city's Human Resources Department did not conduct its own investigation on the matter.

The city, which disputes Holland's conclusions, has 90 days to ask for a review of the decision and to request a judge to vacate it. Gonzales said pursuing the review could cost the city from $5,000 to $15,000.

The City Council met in closed session Monday with its outside attorney, Greg Hearing, who laid out the city's options, said Mayor Frank Hibbard. The council is expected to decide its next step at its Oct. 19 meeting. Before the vote, the public will have the opportunity to speak on the matter, Hibbard said.

It would be "frivolous and a waste of taxpayers' money" for the city to fight the decision, said Paul Donnelly, the attorney who represents Murray. Donnelly said the city's contention that the arbitrator exceeded his authority is "a legally frivolous position and a court can't review those positions."

"That process would take a year and at least tens of thousands of dollars for the city to pursue," Donnelly said. "And that's in addition to what they have already spent."

The city has spent nearly $30,000 in attorney fees and other costs on the Murray matter.

According to state statutes, an arbitrator's decision is binding, but it can be vacated for a few reasons. Among them are if the award was obtained by corruption, fraud or undue means, or if the arbitrator exceeded his authority. A decision also can be vacated if the arbitrator refused to hear certain evidence material to the controversy.

Donnelly contends none of those things occurred with this decision.

Informed of the attorney's recommendation that the city seek a review of the case, Murray questioned the fairness of it all. He said the city presented its case and he won.

"That's fair, right?" he asked. "I thought it would be over; apparently it's not."

The council was expected to consider its options at last Thursday's meeting, but postponed any discussion until Monday. Murray, however, showed up Thursday and was allowed to address the council.

Murray, a lifelong Clearwater resident, told the council he was remorseful and asked members to "give me another chance to prove myself."

"I have a lot to prove. ... I'm asking that you give me the opportunity to prove myself," he said.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 21:08:18]


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