Fire chief sues township

Initially suspended, then reinstated, Chief Leist says trustees defamed him.

The fire chief suspended and later reinstated as a result of an investigation into his performance filed a civil lawsuit against his employer that alleges defamation and demands monetary compensation.

Mad River Twp.-Enon Fire Chief David Leist and his attorney lodged the complaint against the fire department and the township and its trustees last week in Clark County Common Pleas Court with demands in excess of $25,000.

“The defendants conducted an improper and statutorily-unregulated investigation of the plaintiff, based largely on unsubstantiated rumors and innuendo,” the suit says.

All trustees named as defendants — Joe Catanzaro, Kathy Estep and Robert McClure Jr. — were contacted for comment but failed to respond.

The suit alleges the defendants knowingly made false statements orally and in writing about him and made his work at the fire department more difficult.

“He has suffered through a series of degrading, insulting and discriminatory comments which are untrue, unlawful and actionable. The defendants actions directly and casually damaged the plaintiff emotionally (and his) ability to maintain respect among peers and colleagues at Mad River Twp. Fire Department and trustees, and damaged his chances to retain future employment,” it says.

The suit also alleges the defendants publicly disparaged Leist personally and in his position as fire chief, statements that were heard by at least one other witness.

It also alleges the defendants took full ownership of the comments and the comments led “directly and proximally to defined physical and mental damage to the plaintiff’s reputation.”

“I feel there’s a real injustice that’s going on here,” attorney Mark J. Bamberger said. “The only way we saw here to get justice for Mr. Leist is to file this suit.”

He declined further comment.

Leist deferred all comments to Bamberger.

Last year, trustees launched an investigation into Leist’s performance, and a report obtained by the Springfield News-Sun indicated his performance had been lacking in 14 areas, particularly in equipment care, his own conduct and staff relations.

It alleged multiple performance issues, misuse of a township truck, denial of requests for dispatcher radio maintenance, problems with service of and medical supply inventory in medic units and a physical fight between Leist and his son at a party.

That investigation led to periods of paid administrative leave and unpaid suspension before Leist was fully reinstated with back pay in November.

“Upon review, the board concludes that the investigation summary submitted to the board … is only a report and is insufficient to constitute charges under Ohio Revised Code,” then Board President Joe Catanzaro said, reading from a statement the night Leist was reinstated.

The investigation, conducted by German Twp. Fire Department Chief Tim Holman at the request of Mad River Twp. trustees, was compiled through interviews of department officers and members, records, emails, memos and the policy manual.

Names of the staff interviewed were not included in that report and haven’t been released.

In a letter to the trustees before Leist’s reinstatement, Bamberger wrote that trustees hadn’t followed the Ohio Revised Code or their own progressive disciplinary process.

“Rumors and accusations without merit have been used to escalate potential discipline against our client in direct violation of this guidance,” he wrote.

The suit also alleges that the trustees demanded a meeting without properly following the board’s 24-hour notification rule for a public meeting, that the alleged fight between Leist and his son was only a verbal altercation, according to witnesses on scene, and that two trustees yelled at Leist during a fire department staff meeting.

According to the township, Leist is a part-time township employee with an annual base pay of about $9,700, but the lawsuit says he holds a volunteer position with a stipend.