Pennsylvania Fire Company and IAFF Local Sued In Federal Court

A female firefighter employed by a volunteer fire company who was fired earlier this year over a Facebook post, has filed suit against the department and the firefighters’ union claiming her termination was retaliation, gender discrimination and a breach of the union’s duty of fair representation.

Megan Erdley was an EMT/Firefighter with the William Cameron Engine Company in Lewisburg. On May 6, 2017 she posted a statement on Facebook asking: “How comfortable would y’all feel with your family member being in a nursing home who won’t give fire/EMS the code to enter and exit the facility. Delaying entry and exit. Just curious.”

Shortly thereafter she was fired and she claims that IAFF Local 4917 failed to file for arbitration on time leaving her without a remedy. Erdley claims her Facebook post was protected speech, and her discipline constituted retaliation as well as sexual discrimination. She claims she had been subjected to numerous examples of gender-based discrimination over the years and the fire chief was actively trying “to drive her from the WCEC.”

The suit was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and includes five counts:

Count I – Violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Retaliation for Facebook Post

Count II – Violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Retaliation for Resisting Sex Discrimination

Count III – Violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – Sex Discrimination

Count IV – Pennsylvania Common Law Claim for Breach of the Fair Duty of Representation

Count V – Federal Breach of the Fair Duty of Representation 29 U.S.C. § 185, Labor Management Act (“LMRA”) § 301

One of the initial issues in a case like this will be the status of the volunteer fire company as a private entity. The First Amendment as well as 42 USC §1983 are only applicable to state actors. The cases are split on whether private non-profit volunteer fire companies are state actors. The complaint cites a 1995 ruling by the 3rd Circuit holding that volunteer fire companies in Pennsylvania are engaged in a governmental function and therefore a state actor for purposes of 42 USC §1983. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51F.3d1137, 1144 (3rd Cir. 1995).

From the complaint:

  • The WCEC is responsible for the acts of its Fire Chief Blount because its deprivation of Plaintiff Erdley’s constitutional right to free speech was the product of its policy. The WCEC ratified the decisions of Blount-specifically, the decision to terminate Erdley for her May 6th Facebook post-with its final decision-making authority.
  • The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides persons a right to the freedom of speech, and government employees have a right to engage in free speech on matters of public importance, and moreover, government employers must not retaliate against their employees for exercising this right.
  • For purposes of applying Section 1983 liability, Plaintiff Erdley was a government employee; and, similarly, for purposes of Section 1983, the Defendant WCEC was and is a government employer.
  • Plaintiff engaged in the protected activity of making a public statement on her personal Facebook page on May 6, 2017, regarding a matter of public importance.
  • Defendant WCEC terminated Plaintiff Erdley in retaliation for her Facebook Protected Speech.
  • Defendant WCEC’s conduct, as set forth above, violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects persons from being subjected to discrimination, by persons acting under the color of state law, on the basis of sex. Defendant WCEC terminated Plaintiff Erdley in furtherance of Blount’s discriminatory desire to remove all women from the ranks of WCEC’s paid staff of firefighters.
  • Defendant WCEC by ratifying Blount’s decision to terminate Plaintiff Erdley engaged in intentional discrimination. A significant motivating factor in WCEC’s decision to fire Plaintiff was the desire to remove paid female firefighters from the WCEC

The complaint does not allege Title VII gender discrimination, nor discrimination under Pennsylvania law. However, that may be explainable if the discrimination claims are currently pending before the EEOC or it’s state law counterpart.

Here is a copy of the complaint: 2017 Erdley v William Cameron Engine Company et al

More on the story.

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.
  • John Bean

    Pretty interesting stuff. I haven’t delved into the “State Actor” statues, but it would seem on its face, that if the department were a State Actor the Pickering Balance would apply, and her statement bears consideration to be considered a matter of public concern. If the department is found not to be a state actor, could they even be considered “for the interest of the State” an employer? Things like this make the law interesting.

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