Many towns have accepted the provisions of G.L. c. 48, § 42, commonly referred to as the “strong” fire chief statute, in contrast to the “weak” fire chief statute, G.L. c. 48, § 42A. The strong fire chief appoints officers and firefighters and adopts all rules and regulations for the operation of the fire department without oversight by the Select Board. The Select Boards often execute employment contracts with their fire chiefs, whether strong or weak. In the case of Tetreault v. Board of Selectmen of Lynnfield, a strong fire chief claimed that, notwithstanding the expiration of his term of employment under his contract, he could not be removed without cause and was entitled to a hearing. The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled otherwise. When a fire chief’s term under contract expires, his employment terminates, and no hearing or cause is required.
G.L. c. 48, § 42 provides that the fire chief “may be removed for cause by the selectmen at any time after a hearing.” This is inapposite to G.L. c.48, §42A, which allows the Select Board to remove the fire chief without cause (unless the position is subject to civil service requirements). The Lynnfield Board of Selectmen (the “Board”) appointed Mark Tetreault to the position of fire chief pursuant to an employment contract. The contract provided that he “may be disciplined or discharged only for just cause, upon proper notice and only after a hearing.” The contract also provided that the initial term was through December 31, 2016, at which point the contract would automatically renew for one-year periods “[u]nless either party provide[d] written notice to the other of its intention to renegotiate and/or not to renew this contract no less than six (6) months prior to the end of its initial or any extended terms.” In June 2018, the Board voted not to renew the contract beyond December 31, 2018, and provided him notice consistent with the provisions of the contract but did not give him a reason or a hearing.
The trial court ruled in the chief’s favor, finding that the strong fire chief statute plainly and unambiguously required cause and a hearing before termination. The Appeals Court reversed. It held that the provision of the statute requiring a hearing and cause did not apply because Tetrault was not “removed” from his position. Rather, Tetrault’s contract was simply not renewed per its terms. The term “removed” is not defined in the statute, but the Appeals Court noted that in the employment law context, the word ordinarily means a “forced dismissal or termination.” Here, the contract simply came to a “natural end” under its terms.
The Appeals Court also noted that the word “tenure” or other similar term that would recognize a lifetime appointment is not used in the strong chief statute, and the court was unwilling to add words to the statute that the Legislature did not intend. “A lifetime contract [of employment] is so extraordinary that it takes strong proof to establish one…[and] particularly explicit expressions of intent are required to bind an employer to an employment contract of extraordinary duration.” (citations omitted). Finally, the tenure act, G.L. c. 41, § 127, permits incumbents of most municipal appointive office including fire chiefs to apply for tenure after at least five consecutive years of service. The application is subject to approval by the board of selectmen and town meeting. None of the conditions precedent for tenure occurred in this instance.
This decision clarifies a misconception that a strong fire chief is appointed for a lifetime tenure, subject only to removal by a hearing for cause. When there is an employment contract associated with such an appointment, the expiration or non-renewal of the contract by its terms ends the employment relationship and no cause or hearing is required.