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High court awards fireman 3.5 years pay and job back

The Nevada Supreme Court issued an order of reversal of a lower court’s upholding of the firing of a local fireman in 2011, which will financially reward him for time missed.

In the case of the Town of Pahrump v. Pahrump Fire Rescue I.A.F.F. Local 4068, the Supreme Court ruling awarded Chris Van Leuven his job back with Pahrump Valley Fire and Rescue, in addition to benefits and 3 1/2 years back pay.

Attempts to reach attorneys from both sides for comments on the case were unsuccessful prior to press time.

The attempt to terminate employment by the Town of Pahrump resulted from a crash involving an ambulance driven by Van Leuven on Sept. 9, 2011. The town argued that Van Leuven was being dishonest when he stated that he applied the brakes before his crash but they failed.

The Nevada highway state trooper who responded to the accident testified that the brakes were fully operational, and that he believed the cause of the accident was Van Leuven’s inattention.

Phone records, turned over by Van Leuven after pre-disciplinary hearings, showed that he had used his phone during transport, as at 1:29 a.m. the night of the crash after he radioed in to report the ambulance was transporting to Las Vegas. Then phone records showed data service activity at 1:30 a.m. on Van Leuven’s phone and then again at 1:33 a.m. as he called to report the collision.

Due to the phone records and the trooper’s statements, the town’s good faith belief was that the facts and the erronious behavior of Van Leuven’s actions constituted his termination.

With Van Leuven’s comments about applying the brakes but failing, the arbitrator saw the incident was fit for a write-up, but not termination, despite what the arbitrator deemed to be “serious misconduct.”

In July 2012, an arbitrator found that the Town of Pahrump failed to meet its burden of proof that the termination of Van Leuven was supported by just cause. The arbitration was authorized pursuant to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the Town of Pahrump.

Colorful allegations surfaced in the arbitration proceedings involving Van Leuven and Fire Chief Scott Lewis, surrounding the two of them allegedly dating the same woman. It was suggested by the arbitrator’s report that the personal issue played a role in Lewis firing Van Leuven.

Then in September 2013, the Town of Pahrump appealed the decision to the the Fifth Judicial District Court on grounds that the arbitrator’s decision and orders were arbitrary and capricious, because the findings did not support that Van Leuven was dishonest. The court granted the union’s motion for alternative remedy, which sent the case to the state’s Supreme Court.

Evidence was presented that the brakes on the ambulance were in working condition and that there were skid marks consistent with the vehicle’s path of travel, according to court documents. Also, a person in the back of the ambulance testified that he felt some braking deceleration.

However, testimony was also submitted that stated the skid marks were old and had nothing to do with the ambulance wreck.

Since Van Leuven honestly believed that he applied the brakes and they failed, it was found that he was not being dishonest.

Even though the high court found irreconcilable differences in the brake dispute, the factual conclusions from the conflicting evidence was reserved for the arbitrator.

In lieu of that decision, the arbitrator’s findings that Van Leuven was not dishonest was supported by substantial evidence, and that the district court erred by vacating the arbitration award.

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