City ordered to reinstate firefighter who had seizures

Tuesday, February 26, 2008 By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

An arbitrator has ordered the City of Pittsburgh to bring back to work a firefighter who had two seizures last year and sued the city in federal court last week.

The arbitrator's award, issued yesterday and separate from the federal lawsuit, compels the city to furnish Fire Capt. David Cerminara with back pay that a union attorney said will total at least $35,000.

Joe King, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, said the award stems from the city's abandonment of a past policy of accommodating firefighters with health problems. "It's their way or no way, and that's what came back and kicked them," he said.

Capt. Cerminara, 51, of Banksville, is a 27-year veteran of the bureau who suffered seizures while sleeping in March and April. He was placed on medication, suffered no further problems and was released to return to work by his doctors in May.

Then a doctor paid by the city wrote to Capt. Cerminara's neurologist, indicating that the city follows a national standard that a firefighter be off seizure medications and seizure-free for one year before he can work. The neurologist rescinded the work release.

The arbitrator, Downtown attorney John J. Morgan, found that the one-year seizure-free standard applies only to new recruits, not to established firefighters.

Mr. Morgan also quoted city officials as testifying that the bureau does not make accommodations for firefighters with medical problems. He found that to be a change from past policy that the city should have negotiated with the union, but didn't.

"Having a policy stating that you are not going to accommodate employees with physical or mental impairments is equivalent to having a policy that expressly permits unlawful discrimination," said Josh Bloom, an attorney representing the union.

Capt. Cerminara hired attorney Samuel J. Cordes, who sued in federal court alleging that the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by using an inapplicable standard and keeping him off work. The complaint demands damages for distress and payment of legal fees.

The city has 30 days to appeal the arbitrator's decision to Common Pleas Court. Administration officials did not comment yesterday.