Former Mass. chief's age discrimination lawsuit rejected

A judge ruled former Marshfield Fire Chief Kevin Robinson’s complaint did not have enough merit for the case to go to trial

By James Kukstis
Wicked Local South

MARSHFIELD, Mass. — A years-long legal battle between Marshfield and former Fire Chief Kevin Robinson ended earlier this month after U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Groton rejected an age discrimination lawsuit Robinson filed against the town, ruling the complaint did not have enough merit for the case to go to trial.

Robinson resigned as Marshfield's fire chief in March 2015, shortly after he and his brother, Capt. Shaun Robinson, were placed on administrative leave following an independent investigation into potential ethics violations.

On Nov. 24, 2014, Marshfield's Board of Selectmen voted to retain the services of Laredo & Smith, LLP, as special counsel to investigate potential violations of ethics laws inside the Marshfield Fire Department.

The report generated from that investigation, provided to the board on Feb. 25, 2015, revealed potential ethics violations by both Robinsons related to both the employment and training of Captain Robinson's daughter Shauna and to overtime grievances.

John Hall, who served as chair of the Board of Selectmen during this time period, said that the Chief was essentially given an ultimatum: retire, or the town would pursue the complaints against him stemming from the Smith Report.

"It was like, Kevin, if you don't just go away quietly, we're going to release this," Hall said. "You're forcing us to do it, we don't have a choice. He said OK, and left, but was bitter about it. He thought he was being picked on."

Hall told The Mariner he didn't want "revenge," he just wanted Robinson to leave his post.

Over a year and a half later, in December 2016, Chief Robinson sued the town, then-Town Administrator Rocco Longo and Hall, alleging that he was forced to retire due to age discrimination and as retaliation for complaints he had made about age discrimination on behalf of himself and gender discrimination on behalf of his niece, and that the town failed to investigate those complaints.

"[Age discrimination] had nothing to do with it," Hall said. "We saw the investigation, we read it, and then decided to offer [Robinson] an exit strategy. I talked to him and told him that if he retired, he'd have a party, nobody would have to know anything outside the department, and he could have a nice retirement, but just go."

Case rejected

U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Groton allowed the defense's motion for summary judgment on Jan. 11, 2019, meaning there was not enough evidence to move to a trial. Ending the years-long legal fight Robinson waged against the town for now.

In his order, Judge Groton addressed each complaint by Robinson and determined that they are not warranted:

"Not only has the Chief failed to show that his resignation was coerced, he also has not rebutted defendants' claims that they had cause to remove him."

"Defendants have proffered specific facts that the Chief was placed on paid administrative leave because the Smith Report concluded that he committed multiple ethics violations in his role as Fire Chief. In response to that evidence, the Chief alleges that the Smith Report was a 'sham' investigation without reference to any specific evidence thereof [...]."

"The defendants have offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for placing the Chief on administrative leave based on the fact that an independent investigation conducted by retained counsel concluded that he had violated several conflict of interest laws. Relying on his own testimony that the Town and its retained counsel had it out for the Chief does not rise to the level of 'specific facts' to demonstrate that the employer's real motive was age discrimination."

"[Special counsel] was retained before the plaintiff filed his age discrimination complaint against the Town. Moreover, there is no evidence that the Town doctored the Smith Report, as alleged, and the town has articulated a legitimate reason for placing the Chief on administrative leave."

Additionally, Groton said Robinson cannot rely on the proximity of his age complaint and the decision to place him on leave as evidence of a causal connection.

Robinson's claims of breach of contract, intentional interference and defamation also failed.

At attorney for Robinson said that they "disagree with the Court's decision and stand by the merits of Chief Robinson's legal claims and are contemplating all appeal options."

Complaints continue after leaving Marshfield

Complaints of ethics and union violations against Robinson have not been limited to his tenure in Marshfield.

In August of last year, Robinson was unanimously censured at the International Association of Firefighters convention due to actions as interim fire chief in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. He was appointed there in February 2018, and by the time of his censure was received, over 20 grievances had been filed, including complaints that he allegedly increased the workweek from 42 to 56 hours and laid off staff.

The censure against Robinson, submitted by the East Greenwich Fire Department, was passed unanimously by the body, which represents over 300,000 firefighters in the United States and Canada.

Town officials in East Greenwich disputed the union's claims and expressed "full confidence" in Robinson.

East Greenwich Town Council President Sue Cienki's response to the censure said the action was "part of an ongoing campaign by members of the East Greenwich firefighters union to distract attention from the feathering of their own next at the expense of taxpayers."

Cienki went on to say the allegations made by Marshfield officials and cited by the IAFF "were merely allegations that were found to have no merit by the Massaschusetts State Ethics Commission."

According to court documents, though, the commission terminated their investigation as a result of Robinson's resignation. Marshfield had referred the matter to the state ethics commission following the Smith Report.

Robinson's interim position in East Greenwich, initially intended as a four-to-five month role, ended in November 2018.

Copyright 2019 Wicked Local South

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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