Big-time payback

Tom Caton, a 29-year veteran of the Dallas Fire Department, did not decide to become a firefighter to get rich. Far from it. He put his life on the line battling blazes as a public service and a labor of love. The only thing he expected to get in return was a little respect and fair treatment from the city. At the very least, he expected the city to abide by its own laws.

Five years ago, Caton discovered that the city, in fact, consistently had violated a 1979 ordinance guaranteeing pay parity among the ranks of its firefighters and police officers. In 1994, Caton and 823 fellow firefighters filed suit against the city demanding back pay with interest. Three more suits, encompassing almost every firefighter and police officer in the city, subsequently were filed.

According to sources close to the case, Collin County state District Judge Robert Dry Jr. will make a decision in the first suit within days. Lawyers for the firefighters say they feel confident the judge will rule in their favor--a decision that could translate into as much as $150 million in damages when all four suits are concluded.

Attorneys for the law firm of Haynes and Boone, which is representing the city, would not comment on the suit. The law firm has received more than $900,000 in fees from the city.

"This is a giant lawsuit," Caton says. "The city would never sit down and talk with us. They thought we were going to go away. We wouldn't. All we wanted was to be treated fairly."

The seeds of this lawsuit were planted in 1979, when the city's firefighters and police officers thought they deserved significant raises. With no collective bargaining, the only legal avenue available for them to force a pay increase was to take it to the voters. On January 20, 1979, the city called a special election concerning two pay issues.

Voters gave firefighters and police officers 15 percent across-the-board raises. In addition, they passed a proposition, later approved and adopted by the city council, that requires the city to maintain the same percentage differential between the salaries for all ranks that existed when the ordinance became effective.

For example, in 1979, Fire Chief Dodd Miller's base salary was 60 percent higher than the entry-level salary for the rank of "second driver" held by Tom Caton. By law, Miller's salary should still be 60 percent higher today, meaning that as his salary rose, the lower ranks' pay should have increased proportionally. It didn't. Today, Chief Miller makes about 160 percent more money than Tom Caton, who maintains the rank of second driver. The lawsuits contend that Caton and others like him, who received less than the formula provided for, are owed money.

What the firefighters' lawsuit ultimately revealed was that the pay differentials among the eight ranks within the fire department were never maintained, nor were they ever maintained among the ranks in the police department. The city knew it was out of compliance as early as 1988, but did nothing about it, according to documents uncovered in the suit.

In 1988, retiring Deputy Fire Chief Bobby Moore discovered that he and his fellow deputy fire chiefs had not been compensated fairly according to the 1979 ordinance. In 1979, deputy chiefs were paid 16.2 percent more than battalion chiefs, the rank just below deputy chief. The summer before he retired, Moore learned that the pay differential between the two ranks was less than 16.2 percent. Moore informed the city that he thought he and his fellow deputy chiefs should get more money. The city agreed.

According to Moore's deposition, he attended a meeting in the summer of 1988 with First Assistant City Manager Jan Hart, City Attorney Analeslie Muncy, and Dianna Sword, who was the city's director of personnel. At the meeting, Muncy stated that the 1979 ordinance guaranteeing a consistent pay differential applied to all ranks. Hart stated the city would increase the pay of deputy chiefs. A memorandum from Hart shows that the deputy chiefs' pay rate was adjusted retroactively for six months.

"The city wrote the deputy chiefs a check and shut them up," says John Stooksberry, a lawyer for the first group of firefighters to file suit. "Maybe they didn't think anyone would find out that everything was out of whack. It's easier to help a handful of deputy chiefs and keep them happy than thousands of the lower ranks."

For many years, no one did find out. In 1992, Tom Caton and other firefighters who held the rank of second driver complained to the city that they were not getting the same percentage pay increases as other ranks. Their grievances, however, fell on deaf ears. "If they had just talked to us, this lawsuit would have never come up," Caton says.

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Ann Zimmerman

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