NEW CASTLE Firemen file suit over hiring
City officials say the men waited too long to sue.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Craig Wethli and Robert Eakin served their country, but say that didn't matter to city officials when they hired firefighters in October 1997.
The former U.S. Marines say they missed out on pay, benefits and accruing seniority because city officials ignored the state's Veteran's Preference Act and hired a nonveteran.
They are hoping to get all of that, along with damages, in Lawrence County Common Pleas Court.
Their attorney, Charles Garbett, argued Monday for a judge to dismiss the city's preliminary objections to the lawsuit they filed.
City solicitor James Manolis claims the men waited too long to file a claim, missing a two-year statute of limitations for civil-rights lawsuits.
Attorney's view: However, Garbett said he doesn't view the suit as a civil-rights violation, but a violation of the Veteran's Preference Act, which has a six-year statute of limitations, he said.
& quot;We think this is appropriate under the circumstances, & quot; Garbett said. & quot;We believe they were actively misled, and they trusted people who turned on them and then said 'you've waited too long' & quot; to file a lawsuit.
Pennsylvania law gives veterans hiring preference over nonveterans if they place in the top three spots of a civil-service list.
Civil-service lists are compiled through a series of physical, written and verbal tests. Veterans are given extra points for their military service.
Subject of grievance: Both men, now working as part-time firefighters, were the subject of a grievance filed in January 2000 by the city firefighters union.
Wethli, 31, of North Cascade Street, was hired as a part-time firefighter May 20, 1998. He also works as a truck driver and fireworks shooter for Zambelli Fireworks and has a commercial pilot's license.
Eakin, 34, of East Washington Street, was hired on a part-time basis March 27, 2000. He has his own heating and air conditioning business.
The union wanted the city to give both men full-time status and back pay because the Veteran's Preference Act was violated.
The union claimed its contract states that the city must follow all local, state and federal laws, which includes the veteran's act.
An arbitrator agreed with the firefighters, saying the city erred in not hiring Eakin and Wethli in October 1997, but said the city was not required to make them full time because that's considered a promotion and is not subject to the veterans rule or civil-service lists.
Manolis said the city hires new firefighters part time and they achieve full-time status, which is considered a promotion, only when four full-timers retire.
Under consideration: Judge Dominick Motto is also considering Manolis' arguments that Eakin and Wethli should have filed separate lawsuits and the suit filed doesn't contain enough information about what they want.
Manolis also challenged their request for health benefits, which the city isn't required to give part-time workers.
Garbett said the firefighter hired in October 1997 has already been promoted to full time. If Eakin or Wethli had been hired then, one or both would have had that full-time position and be entitled to those health benefits, he said.
& quot;It always seems to be around Memorial Day and primary elections that we go on and on about what a tremendous debt we owe our veterans. As soon as the election is over, we forget about them, & quot; Garbett said. & quot;There is something that is owed to these veterans. & quot;
Wethli served in the U.S. Marines from August 1989 to August 1993 and was in Desert Storm. Eakin served in the Marines from November 1984 to November 1988 and has been in the Army National Guard the past nine years.