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Town of Chichester, former fire chief settle wrongful termination suit

Chichester’s former fire chief will be paid $27,500 to settle his wrongful termination lawsuit against the town, ending a long-standing dispute that started when two of his employees accused him of assault.

The decision to settle came two days into a bench trial last month at Merrimack County Superior Court. But the agreement leaves the question at the middle of the conflict still unresolved: Did Gilbert Vien partake in the “workplace bullying” alleged by the selectmen who fired him or was his termination a form of retaliation for speaking out against the board?

Because the agreement won’t be finalized until early this week, both Vien and Selectman Richard DeBold have declined to comment. Lawyers on both sides said they are pleased with the drafted agreement. But they disagreed on why the parties decided to settle in the midst of a trial, with both saying the evidence had been in their favor.

“When you feel like you won, you won,” Bruce Marshall, Vien’s attorney, said.

Town attorney Daniel Mullen said the testimony wasn’t so clear cut, and neither party knew which way Judge Richard McNamara would have ruled.

At question was whether the town was warranted when the selectmen voted in 2010 to fire Vien, chief of the town’s volunteer department, after two employees accused him of assault. Those incidents, which according to court documents date back to 2007 and 2009, were investigated by the Merrimack County Attorney’s Office. The office decided in May 2010 to not press charges.(The parties disagree here as well. Marshall said the office found the allegations to be baseless; Mullen said the statute of limitations had expired.)

While no criminal charges were filed, two of the town’s three selectmen decided in August 2010 that Vien had violated town policies. In their dismissal letter, on file at the court, the selectmen said Vien used “abusive and profane language” at work and also “threatened employees with bodily harm.”

Vien was also accused of forcing the department’s student firefighters to use equipment without proper training and falsely reporting to the town that the state’s board of emergency medical services was investigating one of his employees.

Vien has denied all of the allegations. Marshall said Vien was fired because he had accused the selectmen of putting false information in a grant application and had gone to the state fire marshal’s office with complaints about code violations at town buildings.

Marshall called Vien a person of “integrity” and said that was clear during the trial. He said Vien’s ultimate goal was to “clear his name,” and he decided to settle when that had been accomplished.

Mullen, though, said there was testimony during the trial that Vien did strike two of his employees. According to a report by the county attorney’s office, Vien was accused of hitting one of the firefighters as the man repeatedly bounced a ping-pong ball against the side of the building. In the other incident, Vien was accused of hitting an employee who was showing another firefighter how to use an ambulance siren, according to the report.

“The town is not admitting any liability,” Mullen said of the settlement. “They’re paying Mr. Vien essentially money to, quote, ‘buy peace,’ so that this matter is done and over with, and the town and Mr. Vien can move forward.”

According to Marshall, the $27,500 Vien will receive covers legal fees and the wages he would have made through the end of his term, which was set to expire March 31, 2011. The town has also agreed to make clear in its next annual report that Vien resigned from his post and wasn’t fired.

Vien is currently an employee of the Chichester Highway Department, and the agreement also includes a stipulation that the town will not “retaliate” against him in his position there. Both Vien and his wife, Joyce, who worked for the fire department and was laid off shortly after her husband, will also be allowed to apply for positions at the department in the future.

Before the case went to trial, a judge had thrown out several claims made by Vien including an allegation that town officials violated the whistleblowers’ protection act. The judge also dismissed a wrongful termination claim filed by Vien’s wife.

Court documents show the couple initially sought a $60,000 payout from the town. Marshall said last week that the lesser figure they agreed to covers the penalties applicable under the portions of their lawsuit that had not been dismissed.

The town had originally offered to pay $15,000 to settle the case without a trial, according to court documents.

Shortly before Vien’s dismissal, a former town official said he was receiving an annual $5,600 stipend for his duties.

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or
tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @tricia_nadolny.)

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