Georgia Chief Sues Colleagues For Age Discrimination Over Alcohol Allegations

A deputy chief from Warner Robins, Georgia has filed suit against the city, the mayor and four chief officers claiming age discrimination following an incident in July, 2018 where he was accused of responding to a fire under the influence.

Deputy Chief Robert S. Wood filed suit in US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia last week naming the City of Warner Robins, Mayor Randy Tims, Fire Chief Ross Moulton, Assistant Chief Scottie Durham, Assistant Chief Chris Cannady, and Assistant Chief Scott Renfroe as defendants.

Chief Wood was suspended for 10 days without pay for reportedly responding to a structure fire July 5, 2018 while impaired. He denies being impaired and claims he was wrongfully punished. As explained in the complaint:

  • After arriving at the scene and checking in with the acting Assistant Chief, Lieutenant Lee Brantley, Deputy Chief Wood proceeded to his car to go back home.
  • When Deputy Chief Wood was leaving and on the way to his car, the safety officer, Assistant Chief Dean Christian (“Christian”), asked Deputy Chief Wood if he could speak with him.
  • Deputy Chief Wood got in Christian’s car to speak with him.
  • It was then that Christian asked Deputy Chief Wood if he had been drinking.
  • Deputy Chief Wood responded that he had not, and they finished their conversation.
  • Deputy Chief Wood then returned to his car and went back home.
  • Deputy Chief Wood immediately called his supervisor, Chief Ross Moulton (“Moulton”), and told him what Christian had asked him and how he had responded.
  • Approximately one hour after Deputy Chief Wood left the fire scene and returned home, Moulton arrived unannounced at Deputy Chief Wood’s home, which is in Houston County, not in the City of Warner Robins. When Moulton showed up, Deputy Chief Wood was upstairs in bed watching television.
  • Deputy Chief Wood got out of bed and went downstairs to greet Chief Moulton, who asked Deputy Chief Wood to go outside with him.
  • An off-duty City of Warner Robins police officer arrived within minutes to perform a breathalyzer test on Plaintiff.
  • Deputy Chief Wood informed Moulton he had consumed an alcoholic beverage after arriving home from the fire scene, and therefore a breathalyzer test would not be accurate as to his state at the fire.

Chief Wood alleges that besides the gap in time between the fire and the breathalyzer test, the test itself was not conducted in accordance with state law. None-the-less it was relied upon as the basis for which the city disciplined him. Chief Wood also claims the mayor wrongfully released the results of the test to the public, and publicly discussed HIPAA protected medical information.

Upon returning from his suspension, Chief Wood claims he was subjected to extreme harassment by the fire chief and his superiors who told him repeatedly that he needed to resign. Among the comments that he claims were evidence of their hostile intent:

  • [Chief Moulton said] “I have had to fight the Mayor since the day I promoted you.”…  “if you care about me, you’ll retire.”
  • [Other chiefs told him] “Chief Moulton wants you to retire. We want you to retire.”
  • “What pisses me off – your boss crying on TV apologizing to the public because of you and you ain’t got no comment…If you had any balls, you could get on there and say…it ain’t got nothing to do with him, this is me and I’m out and I’m gone…He wants you gone. Ask him.”
  • “Why does everybody have to spell everything out for you? That’s why I’m so direct because you don’t read between the lines…The only thing that’s going to fix it is if you leave…It’s four of the top people in this place — not one, not two, not three, four — four are on the same wavelength for you to leave, but you choose not to do that.”
  • “if he (Deputy Chief Wood) cared about him (Chief Moulton) and this fire department, he would retire right now, and he should have already retired.”

The complaint attributes all of what occurred to Chief Wood to age discrimination, and claims the drinking concerns were merely a pretext. According to the complaint, Chief Wood was 56 when the incident occurred.

Besides alleging a violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the suit alleges retaliation, hostile work environment, civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C § 1981 and 42 U.S.C § 1983 for the release of personal information to the public, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. While the complaint mentioned HIPAA in two places, it did not include a separate count for a HIPAA violation.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

Here is earlier news coverage of the incident that sparked the suit, and the resulting discipline.

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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