Charlotte officials are asking the state’s second-highest court to reverse a lower court ruling favoring a suspended firefighter. The case stems from a controversial social media post about Charlotte Fire Department recruiting.
Superior Court Judge Lisa Bell ruled in December 2022 in favor of Battalion Chief Kenneth “Shane” Nantz. Bell’s order reversed a unanimous 2021 decision from Charlotte’s Civil Service Board. The board had upheld Charlotte fire officials’ decision to suspend Nantz without pay.
The case involves Nantz’s alleged action during a 2019 fire department controversy. An Instagram message posted from the fire department’s recruitment division “contained inaccurate facts and misleading implications about CFD’s work, which disparaged the work of CFD personnel. The Post’s content had not been approved by anyone in CFD Command Staff prior to being posted,” wrote Charlotte city attorneys in a brief filed Friday.
More than one month after the posted message, fire department leaders learned about it through complaints. Fire Chief Reginald Johnson sent a staff-wide email “denouncing the contents of the Instagram Post and reassuring personnel the post was not approved by Command Staff, and that it did not reflect CFD’s recruitment strategy or the respect its members deserve,” the city’s brief added.
Two hours after Johnson’s email, Nantz composed an email that “purported to be a communication from CFD administration, addressed ‘To’ the Chief and dated two months earlier in August.” Nantz’s email “listed several recruitment strategy talking points, in bulleted form, that coincide with points in the prior Instagram Post,” city lawyers wrote. “The Email referenced a fictitious prior ‘discussion’ with the Chief and implied the Chief’s approval of the recruitment strategy portrayed in the Instagram Post.”
Nantz never sent the email, but printed a copy, according to the city’s brief. Days later, another Charlotte firefighter posted a photo of the printed email on Facebook. “The accompanying Facebook message pointed to the similarities with the Instagram Post, implying Command Staff actually approved the recruitment messaging in the Instagram Post, which discredited the Chief. The Email was viewed negatively by numerous CFD members, who believed it to be authentic.”
City information security officials traced the email to Nantz. “Nantz was interviewed and provided multiple opportunities, over six hours, to explain the Email. But when questioned by the Chief, Nantz denied creating it, instead indicating he had nothing to do with the Email.”
The Civil Service Board did not find Nantz’s explanation for the email “to be plausible or his testimony credible.” The board determined that Nantz had violated two rules: “conduct unbecoming a member of CFD and providing false information on a City record with malicious intent.”
Bell’s decision reversed the Charlotte board. She called for a new hearing. “The Superior Court erred because competent and substantial evidence in the whole record … supports the CSB’s determination that: 1) Nantz’ actions violated CFD’s Rules of Conduct; and 2) Nantz’ explanation of events was not credible,” according to city attorneys.
“The fraudulent Email, which Nantz printed and was later published on Facebook, was perceived as a legitimate communication with the Chief,’ according to the brief. “The Email intentionally misled CFD members to believe the Chief had discussed and approved the objectionable recruitment message in the Instagram Post, which had troubled many CFD members; even though the Chief had in fact repudiated the Instagram Post only hours earlier.
“Nantz’ fabricated Email discredited his superior officer — the Chief of CFD — and CFD administration,” city lawyers argued. “Nantz knew the content of the Email was false or, if allowed the most generous consideration, acted with reckless disregard as to its falsity.”
The firefighter’s lawyers filed paperwork on Aug. 22 asking the Appeals Court to dismiss the city’s appeal. Nantz’s court filing argued that the case does not qualify for an appeal at this stage.
Nantz also emphasized the trial judge’s decision. “[T]he Superior Court concluded: (1) the CSB’s decision was not supported by competent evidence and does not have a rational basis in the evidence; (2) the decision to limit the presentation of evidence deprived Nantz of his due process; (3) the limitation of time put counsel for Nantz in the untenable position of choosing between cross-examination and presenting evidence; and (4) given the number of witnesses and technical nature of the testimony CSB abused its discretion in placing a limitation on the presentation of evidence.”
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