Birthday Party Assignment Prompts Discrimination Suit in Montgomery County

Today’s burning question: I joined a volunteer fire company in 2009. I started out as an administrative member, but in 2010 I got my EMT license and become an active member. However, I am a divorced Mom and have child care responsibilities and… well, I wasn’t totally happy about it but in 2011 rather than “fight city hall” I agreed to go back to being an administrative member because I couldn’t commit to working the 12 hours per week that the chief requires of active volunteers. I went back and forth with the chief about what administrative duties I could do. I really wanted to stay active.

While there were a number of things I could do, the chief insisted that I commit to hosting kids birthday parties at the fire station every weekend for four hours.  He started getting kind of nasty about it. Its not that I don’t want to help but I cannot commit to doing kids birthday parties every single weekend. I have my own child care issues on weekends. Plus, I am an EMT, I have tremendous administrative skills… there are a ton of things I can do. But hosting birthday parties? Seriously? Is that why someone joins a volunteer fire department?

So while we were trying to find an administrative function for me the fire chief calls me out at a monthly meeting in front of a group of 22 firefighters, and publically accuses me of not being willing to host birthday parties. When I try to explain he says “Well then you are of no use to this department! You have nothing to offer! I am removing you as a member of the Department!”

Can he do this? Can he fire me because I can’t host birthday parties?

Oh, and by the way, I am a practicing attorney in Washington DC and my specialty is employment discrimination.

Answer: Your chief needs to see a psychiatrist!!!! That should be the first thing he does right after he hires a good defense attorney. Are you kidding me?

DC Attorney Diane Seltzer Torre, a former member of the Glen Echo Fire Department, has filed suit against the department and the Conduit Road Fire Board alleging discrimination on the basis of family responsibilities, age and marital status. Her claims stems from… well… basically the facts outlined above.

Torre wanted to volunteer to serve her community and initially agreed to serve the company in an administrative capacity. She wanted to do more, went to EMT school and became active as an EMT. When she could not meet the hourly commitment to remain active she reluctantly stepped back offering to assist in a variety of ways including fundraising, recruiting, and even providing free legal assistance.

The fire chief had a better idea: “host birthday parties… on weekends.” When Torre balked, the chief’s solution was to humiliate her in front of the entire fire company at a monthly meeting and publicly fire her even though he lacked the ability to do so under fire company rules.

Truly a YCMTSU moment that was not rectified even after Montgomery County Fire & Rescue sought to intervene to help the fire company see the wisdom in resolving an employment discrimination dispute with an employment discrimination specialist.  There is no happy ending in sight for this one!

Torre filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court on November 18, 2013.  Here is a copy of the complaint:  Diane Seltzer Torre v Glen Echo

For those not familiar with family responsibility discrimination here is a little primer:

  • “Although not specifically prohibited by federal anti-bias laws, family responsibility discrimination litigation has skyrocketed in the past decade.
  • “Family Responsibility Discrimination … is a form of gender discrimination against women or men because of their caregiving responsibilities.
  • “Although federal law does not prohibit such discrimination per se, both the courts and now the … EEOC… have recognized there are circumstances in which discrimination against caregivers might constitute unlawful disparate treatment under Title VII and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s …  prohibition against discrimination based on an employees‟ association with an individual with a disability.
  • “Such discrimination may also run afoul of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA), Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
  • “[A]n increasing numbers of state and local laws have cropped up specifically prohibiting discrimination against employees because they are parents or have family responsibilities. Employees have also pursued FRD cases under state common-law theories, including wrongful discharge and breach of contract.”

Definitely no happy ending in sight…

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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