Fire department cleared by jury
Front Royal company did not violate free speech rights of ex-firefighters
By Joe Beck
A federal jury in Harrisonburg on Friday found the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department did not violate the free speech rights of two volunteer firefighters when it suspended one and stripped the other of his department membership.
The plaintiffs, David Ellinger and Philip Charles, filed a lawsuit accusing the department of suspending Ellinger and permanently barring Charles in response to their criticism of several decisions affecting equipment and fire company revenue.
The seven-member jury returned its verdict at about 4 p.m. after 21 hours of deliberations and a four-day trial. The jury found there was not enough evidence to support the claim that criticism from Charles or Ellinger was “a substantial or motivating factor” in the disciplinary actions taken against them by the department.
Ellinger also lost a part of the lawsuit that accused David Santmyers, the former president of the fire company’s board of directors, of defaming him in disputes over the donation of fire engine paint and the purchase of engine oil.
In the defamation part of the verdict, the jury found that Santmyers made false statements about Ellinger, but Santmyers either did not know the statements to be false or that Santmyers was not at fault for failing to learn the facts about his statements.
Warren County Fire and Rescue Services Chief Richard E. Mabie welcomed the verdict as the lifting of a burden on the fire company, which faced the possibility of losing a considerable amount of money if the verdict had favored Charles and Ellinger.
Mabie is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the Front Royal company, although he did testify Tuesday in court.
“I am glad for the fire department because it certainly would have cost them a lot of money,” Mabie said. “I’m seeing this as a way of putting everything aside and moving forward.
“Although it may not have hindered operations providing fire and rescue services to the community, it’s sure been something that’s taken up a lot of time for administrative staff.”
Much of the conflict between Ellinger, Charles and Santmyers arose from disagreements over whether an aging fire truck should be sold or repaired. A second issue involved how much money the Front Royal fire company should be receiving under a program designed to distribute ambulance fee revenue among the county’s several volunteer fire departments.
Both plaintiffs served stints on the fire company board of directors, Charles as secretary and Ellinger as treasurer.
The evidence introduced at the trial included a letter from Santmyers to Charles listing several reasons why the board of directors was calling a special meeting to vote on whether to remove Charles as a member.
One of the items states: “You invited newspaper reporters to the membership meeting of March 7, 2013 to try and have them write and publish negative comments about this department, its administration and officers of the department.”
Santmyers also wrote a letter to Ellinger that accused him of having “a personal vendetta with members of the board of directors and fire officers.”
The letter also states: “Mr. Ellinger, you have created so much turmoil within the department over the past several years that you have become a liability to the organization.
“When the board of directors, the president or fire chief or other members in authority positions asked you to stop, you would continue to try to force your preferences and opinion on the department by means of blatant subterfuge.”
Ellinger, a deputy sheriff with the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, cited a derogatory letter sent by Santmyers to the Sheriff’s Office as evidence of retaliation against Ellinger for speaking out on departmental issues. The letter accuses Ellinger of wrongfully obtaining free paint for his own use through the fire department. The letter also claims Ellinger tried to substitute a type of motor oil for use in a truck in place of the oil ordered by fire company Chief Larry Oliver.
In court documents, Ellinger said Sheriff Robert Williamson investigated the accusations against Ellinger before they “were ultimately found baseless by the Sheriff, and the investigation was dismissed.”
Mabie said the turmoil in the Front Royal department was different from the problems that forced the county fire administration to intervene in the affairs of the defunct Shenandoah Farms Volunteer Fire Department and eventually dissolve the company in 2013.
“This was all internal to the Front Royal Fire Department,” Mabie said. “Other than a few accusations, it really didn’t affect us.”
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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