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Firefighter must be reinstated

ALBANY -- A firefighter terminated by the city after a guilty plea on theft charges must be reinstated immediately, a superior court judge ruled Tuesday.

The order is the latest in a six-year legal battle to reclaim former Albany Fire Department Lt. Joseph Pait's job.

"This is a definite win for Mr. Pait, but it was Mattie Goddard's case that laid the groundwork for this victory," Pait Attorney Maurice King said Monday. "She may have lost her case but she's helping others through her fight."

Pait, who had a side job clearing land in 2003, was fired after investigators found items from a property in Lee County in a storage shed he owned in Dougherty County.

During the legal battle, Pait had argued that he had been told by a Lee County Sheriff's deputy that the land and property was vacant and about to be seized and bulldozed by the county when he and a business partner cleaned it up. During that process, some items were taken.

After maintaining his innocence, Pait accepted a plea deal to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of theft and was granted first offender status by the court.

In his ruling Tuesday, Chief Superior Court Judge Willie Lockette said that the city erred in three main areas.

First, Pait should not have been terminated for a felony conviction as outlined in the city's personnel manual since he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors.

Secondly, Pait's first offender status does not constitute a "conviction," in the state of Georgia and should not have been used as grounds for termination.

Lastly, Lockette used the Georgia Supreme Court's ruling in Goddard's suit against the city, to support Pait's contention that he was not considered an "at-will," employee and must be terminated for cause.

Former Civic Center Director Mattie Goddard was terminated and sued saying that the city violated its own policy manual by not providing her with all of her due process rights under the law. The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the city, but ruled that only department heads are "at-will," and can be fired without reason.

Tuesday, Lockette ordered that the city immediately reinstate Pait to his former position and status with the department, pay him all back wages including all wage increases and adjustments covering the period between Tuesday and Dec. 19, 2003.

Pait will also receive all seniority, retirement, Social Security, insurance and other benefits which he would have received had he not been terminated.

City officials said they respected the court's decision and intended to abide by it, but that a legal review by the city attorney's office for consideration of an appeal would take place.

"The individual (Pait) had the right to sue and the judge has ruled," Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said. "The city will assess its options on whether to appeal the decision or not and make a determination."

City leaders are nearly complete in their overhaul of the Human Resources policy manual which will likely be presented to the city commission for consideration early in 2010, Smith said.

"Yes, we have the final draft in hand and hope to get it to the commissioners soon," he said.