Court: County must reinstate firefighter

ATLANTA — The Supreme Court of Georgia today upheld a lower court’s ruling ordering DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis and Fire Rescue Chief Eddie O’Brien to reinstate Sell Caldwell III to his former position as a fire captain.

The county’s former fire chief in February 2010 fired Caldwell following a house fire in Dunwoody where an elderly woman died. Caldwell was terminated for failing to locate the dispatch address and failing to take command of the scene.

After Caldwell appealed to the DeKalb County Human Resources and Merit System Department, a hearing officer determined the fire department had made factual errors in firing Caldwell, and he reversed Caldwell’s termination. The county then appealed to the Merit System Council, which unanimously upheld the hearing officer’s decision.

Despite these rulings, the county refused to reinstate Sell, prompting him to take his case to court; a DeKalb Superior Court Judge granted a “writ of mandamus” and ordered the county to give Caldwell his job back. The judge furthermore ruled that because the county had been “unnecessarily litigious” by not reinstating Caldwell despite the administrative rulings, the county would have to pay for Caldwell’s legal fees.

The county then appealed to the state Supreme Court, asserting that Caldwell did not have a legal right to the remedies the trial court ordered. In today’s opinion, the high court unanimously disagrees.

“It is disingenuous for the County to argue that although the Code allows ‘reversal’ of the chief’s decision, it does not contemplate reinstatement,” Justice Hugh Thompson writes for the Court. “By definition, reversal of a termination constitutes reinstatement.”

“Because Caldwell has a clear legal right to reinstatement, a right violated by the County’s steadfast refusal to abide by the order of the hearing officer, as affirmed by the Council on appeal, mandamus was properly granted,” the opinion says.

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