Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County in the case of Richard Kelley et al. v. The City of Erie et al., No. 5695-A-1981.
Carl M. Carlotti, Deputy City Solicitor, for appellants.
Stuart W. Davidson, with him, Jonathan Walters, Kirschner, Walters, Willig, Weinberg & Dempsey, for appellees.
Judges MacPhail, Barry and Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge MacPhail.
[ 82 Pa. Commw. Page 340]
The City of Erie (City) has appealed from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Erie County which disapproved the demotions of six officers in the Erie Fire Department (Department). We reverse.
The reason for the demotions here at issue can be briefly summarized. In response to a May 26, 1981 court order requiring that firefighting rigs in the City be manned by no fewer than four firefighters, the Chief of the Department determined that it was necessary to close one truck company and distribute its crew among the remaining eleven companies. No firemen were discharged as a result of the reorganization. Once the closing of the truck company was implemented, however, the Chief realized that the Department was overstaffed with officers since the same number of officers existed to serve eleven companies as had previously existed for the full complement of twelve companies. The net result was that there were 2 officers of equal rank on each rig. According to the Chief, such a situation "ruins the structure of the
[ 82 Pa. Commw. Page 341]
Fire Department" because "there can be only one person in charge." The Chief, accordingly, demoted six officers*fn1 effective July 25, 1981. Those officers appealed their demotions to the Civil Service Commission (Commission) which, following a hearing, upheld the demotions as being supported by "just cause". On appeal, the court of common pleas reversed concluding that the demotions were not permitted by applicable statutory law.
The City cites the following statutory provision in support of the demotions:
No member of any fire department . . . subject to civil service within the terms of this act, shall be suspended for a period in excess of three days or removed, discharged, or reduced in rank or pay except for just cause, which shall not be religious or political . . . .
Section 10 of the Act of May 31, 1933 (Act), P.L. 1108, as amended, 53 P.S. § 39870. The crucial issue in this case revolves around the proper interpretation of the term "just cause". The officers and the court of common pleas interpret "just cause" to require a connection between the reason for the demotion and the conduct of the employee. Under this interpretation demotions may only be effected for proper disciplinary reasons. Since it is conceded that the demoted officers here were guilty of no misconduct, the officers contend that they were improperly demoted. The City and the Commission, however, ...