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.

  • BH

    Mandatory 12 hours a week for a "volunteer"?  This department has issues that go beyond this whackjob of a chief.  

  • SEE

    That is the standard in this area. My department has over 80 members each week that serve over 12 hours a week.. 

    Sorry BH

    • BH

      Don't apologize to me.  Apologize to the volunteers that get driven away by this nonsense.  Apologize to the other company members who don't benefit from their help around the station in whatever capacity they were capable of providing. 

      "The standard" is horse dung.

      • SEE


        In our area we have multiple departments that have the 12 hour requirerment. The departments that have this requirerment are the stronger VFD. None of which pay volunteers 30K a year either. Looking at the active rosters as of this morning most of these departments have eighty to one hundred and eighty active riding members. As of this morning my department has 130 members fully qualified as minimum staffing and fifty three rookies. To be mininium staffing you need a minimum two hundred hours of training in your first year and an annual NFPA Physical. Most members average twenty hours a week over there first two years…

        Every other month we take in ten to twenty new members..

        Seems to be working well for us.. I could always use a few more members.

        What is your departments staffing?



        • Jim

          How many are fulltime firefighters elsewhere?

          • SEE


            About 15…

  • In this day and age where volunteers are at a premium – if I had someone who could not commit to 12 hours a week but offered to write the fire company newsletter, manage the web site, assist the fire chief by providing free legal advice… even sweep the floors… I would take it.

    • Andrew

      Amen, Chief. If the volunteer could only commit to "doing what she could, when she could," that would be enough for me.  Unless, of course, this is one of those volunteer departments where the members earn $30K a year… which to me isn't really volunteer…

      And just HOW do some of these whackos get elected chief? A personality like that must have revealed itself at some point; didn't anyone stop to think "this may not be A Good Idea"?

    • Akuvar

      Sure, chief, but if you already have someone writting the newsletter and all you really need is the floors swept and you ask them to do that and they say, "Well, I don't reeally have time to do that, either, but I really want to be a volunteer…." How long to keep stringing them along?

      • "but if you already have someone writting the newsletter"???? I take it you don't have a newsletter… because the newsletter folks always need help. But I do understand your point. You cannot accomodate everyone. And to some extent I agree.

        However, if I had someone willing to volunteer their time, I would find things for them to do. That is me and that is my department. An hour a week, two hours a week. I'd take it. Now – I am not saying we are going to issue them $2500 worth of PPE, a $400 pager, etc. etc. etc. But if they can offer time to do what ever… book keeping, fundraising, floor sweeping, web site managing, lawn cutting, smoke detector inspecting, pre-fire data collection/planning, we'll find a way for them to contribute.

        I suppose every community is different and if your community has so many people willing to offer their time that you can afford to be selective, that is another thing entirely.

        But to say "the only thing we need you for is to host birthday parties for children"… while at the exact same moment the fire company is recruiting new volunteers to do other things… (non-emergency non-12 hour commitment things)… kind of seems a little sketchy to me.

        • Akuvar

          I agree, I think they could have handled it better. I don't know if this was their first attempt at accomodating the person, or a long line of attempts ending in failure. One would hope, as you said, that something could be found for a volunteer to do.

  • Mike Octeau

    This is the sort of stuff that drives competent and eager volunteers away! Volunteer Chiefs take notice……Drop your foolish minimum time requirements and rediculous requirements for "active membership" and plug your volunteers in to task that can benefit your department and community. I have seen departments that have membership quotas, dues, silly training requirements and other "boys club initiation routines" that keep good people away. I have also seen Volunteer Chiefs whose egos (as well as their suspect sanity) drive people away. Stop complaining that the problem is that this generation doesn't volunteer. Sometimes, the problem starts at the top.

  • Akuvar

    You can see from the comments who has fire department experince and who has none. You cannot take anyone and accept what little time they offer, you have to have standards, because being part of a fire company takes resources – training, equipment, uniforms – you aren't going to invest that in someone who is not willing to put in at least 12 hours a week. As she stated, she's a trained EMT that couldn't put in the time to volunteer, she wanted to stay active and asked the chief what she could do, he gave her an option and when she couldn't even do that he cut her loose. People's lives are on the line here, folks, you can't pick and choose when you're going to work a shift. Someone doesnt show up for a volunteer shift and a whole unit may scratch on a call. This isn't like volunteering for Habitat for the Humanities or a political candidate. You can't make your own hours and you have to be of value or too many resources are wasted on you. The chief never said, "Your a woman and a single parent and I want you out of here" he said, "You keep telling me you want to be active, you keep cutting your hours, I gave you one, 4 hour thing a week to do and you can't even do that. Goodbye."


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