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Hillsborough judge reinstates Tampa Fire lieutenant suspended 'without cause'

A Hillsborough County court upheld a previous arbitration ruling, and ordered the City of Tampa to reinstate Lt. Dwanue Johnson with full back pay and restoration of seniority and benefits. [Photo courtesy of Tampa Fire Rescue (2018)]
Published May 2

TAMPA — After two years of litigation, the City of Tampa couldn't convince a judge to overturn the arbitration ruling that reinstated a Tampa Fire Lieutenant fired for insubordination.

A Hillsborough County court upheld a previous arbitration ruling, and on April 16 ordered the City of Tampa to reinstate Lt. Dwanue Johnson with full back pay and restoration of seniority and benefits.

The ruling found that Johnson was dismissed without cause on Sept. 14, 2017, when the City of Tampa suspended the paramedic without pay for "insubordination" and "being offensive or antagonistic."

A joint statement from Tampa Firefighters Local 754 and Johnson said "he'd just like to get back to work and put this behind him and start fresh."

"I'm looking forward to serving the citizens of Tampa again after 19 months off," Johnson, 46, said in the statement.

The City of Tampa now has 30 days to appeal the court's decision, which upheld an independent arbitrator's decision that, according to the union's bargaining agreement, was "final and binding."

Johnson's dismissal stemmed from his interactions with the public on two separate calls for service in August 2017.

The first incident to spark an investigation occurred on Aug. 21, when Johnson responded to an emergency call to take a partially deaf and disabled young woman to the hospital.

Her mother had no means of getting to the hospital herself, so she asked Johnson if she could ride in the back of the rescue vehicle with her daughter. Johnson refused to transport the mother and an argument ensued, causing both the young patient and the mother to burst into tears. Johnson finally told the mother that "if she wanted to go to the hospital, she needed to get in the rescue car because they were leaving," court records said.

Tampa Fire Rescue regulations don't require staff to provide transportation to a patient's family members, but the city argued that Johnson was still required to comply with other existing policies regarding "professionalism and interactions with the public." The arbitrator agreed, and ruled that Johnson was "more argumentative than necessary" with the mother.

On Aug. 27, Johnson was again accused of misconduct while responding to a call for help — this time from a woman who said her boyfriend had attempted to die by suicide by overdosing on his medications.

A Tampa Police officer had already cleared the area by the time Johnson — the senior paramedic to respond to the call — arrived, but after an initial medical examination and interview with the man, both the officer and Johnson believed he had not yet taken any medication.

The police officer did not feel the man met criteria to be held under the Baker Act, but the officer asked the man to voluntarily go to the hospital with Johnson.

The man agreed to go to the hospital, but when Johnson continued his medical examination, the man told him he did not want to kill himself and did not want to go. Johnson later admitted to the arbitrator that he "never intended to take the patient to the hospital." Instead, Johnson loaded the man into the rescue vehicle and ordered a subordinate firefighter to "drive around the block until the TPD officer left," then returned to the motel to drop the man off.

The City later determined that Johnson was lax in completing the man's required "refusal of care" form, which was submitted without a required signature from a witness and without the man's initials indicating he consented to various "acknowledgement" sections.

Johnson was charged with "intentionally deceiving Tampa Police Department officers about the patient's disposition and, that by releasing the patient, he acted contrary to the evidence of the patient's condition," court documents said. Johnson was also charged with falsely documenting the case records "either directly or by omission," and was suspended without pay.

Both the arbitrator and the county courts agreed that Johnson "was lax in failing to complete the appropriate paperwork" for the Aug. 27 call, and on Aug. 21 he "was more argumentative than necessary" with the young woman's mother. But his actions in both situations didn't rise to the level of "insubordination," the rulings said.

And although Johnson showed "poor judgement" in planning to deceive TPD when discharging his patient on Aug. 27, the hearings produced no evidence proving that Johnson "ignored evidence," "falsified patient care records," or otherwise violated Tampa Fire regulations.

"It is apparent from testimony of supervisors and managers that Lt. Johnson is no model employee. It appears that he has difficulty in his relationships with fellow employees and in complying with orders," arbitrator Richard P. Gortz, wrote in his ruling. "But the city has a (Collective Bargaining Agreement) in which the parties agreed on the procedure to discipline employees, up to and including discharge. I find that the City did not comply with this procedure but rushed to termination without sufficient cause to do so."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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