Firefighter claims city withheld pay over remarks

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A former Pittsburgh firefighter sued the city Thursday, claiming that about $20,000 he is owed for unused sick time is being withheld because he talked to a reporter two days before his retirement.

David Cerminara, 56, of Banksville, "wasn't talking about anything in the fire department" or compromising public safety when he answered a KDKA-TV reporter's questions on May 30, according to his attorney, Samuel Cordes. He is being punished, though, more than a month after he left the city's employ, according to his complaint.

He is suing, Mr. Cordes said, because "we do not allow small, petty government officials to retaliate and penalize us for exercising our First Amendment rights."

Mr. Cerminara was on duty May 30 at a station in Elliott when he saw a city public works crew painting new lines on Steuben Street, the complaint filed in U.S. District Court said. The same day, he watched as another city crew stripped the freshly lined pavement off the street in preparation for resurfacing.

When a KDKA-TV reporter came around asking questions about it, Mr. Cerminara "commented that what had occurred made no sense, was stupid, and a waste of taxpayer money," the complaint said. Mr. Cordes said that the firefighter did not summon the media.

At the time, Mr. Cerminara was a captain with nearly 32 years in the Fire Bureau and already had filed for retirement.

Two days later, and just hours after Mr. Cerminara's retirement became official, city public safety director Michael Huss filed internal charges against him for speaking with the media without permission, the complaint said. That would normally spur a trial board hearing, but no such process occurred because of Mr. Cerminara's retirement.

However, the city has withheld about $20,000 that Mr. Cerminara is owed for sick time he never used, the complaint said.

"He had conversations with the civil service department, who informed him that the check was cut, and it was given to Mr. Huss, who said he would not send it to him," Mr. Cordes said.

Mr. Cordes said that even if the city has a policy requiring that only the fire chief can speak for the bureau, withholding the check in retaliation for public statements is a violation of Mr. Cerminara's First Amendment free speech rights.

"He was talking about waste in government," Mr. Cordes said. "That's quintessentially what the First Amendment is about. We have a right to do that regardless of whether we are employed by the city or not."

Mr. Huss did not respond to a request for comment made through the city's spokeswoman.

Pittsburgh solicitor Dan Regan said city attorneys will "review it, and then we'll start our process of looking into the allegations that were made."

This is the second time that Mr. Cerminara has sued the city in federal court. In 2008, he accused the city of trying to keep him off the job for a year, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, after he began taking medicine for epilepsy. He received a $59,000 settlement and about $35,000 in back pay.

This time, Mr. Cerminara has sued the city and Mr. Huss. He is seeking the compensation he believes the city owes him plus damages for emotional distress and punitive damages for the alleged constitutional violation.


Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. First Published July 6, 2012 4:45 AM


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