Massachusetts Lieutenant Sues Over Discrimination

A Massachusetts firefighter who was terminated in 2017 has filed suit in federal court alleging decades of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Lieutenant Craig Erickson filed suit against the Town of Rockland last week.

The allegations date back to a 1996 incident where Lt. Erickson was physically assaulted by a town selectman, Edmund DelPrete. DelPrete was subsequently convicted of a racial assault and battery on Lt. Erickson, who is African-American. Lt. Erickson alleges the racial assault left him with PTSD.

The complaint further alleges a series of incidents where Lt. Erickson was “singled out for petty and discriminatory violations of procedure that ultimately culminated in his termination from employment.” Quoting from the complaint:

  • In 2012, Lt. Erickson filed a Complaint with the Civil Service Commission stating that the contemplated appointment of Lt. Thomas Heaney to the position of Fire Captain was in violation of the Commonwealth residency laws.
  • Thomas Heaney is currently, and at all times material, a Rockland Fire Captain and Vice President of the Firefighter’s Union.
  • Prior to filing his Complaint against Heaney with the Civil Service Commission, Lt. Erickson had no written disciplinary reprimands in his personnel file.
  • On or about November 2, 2016, The Lieutenant Erickson was in charge of the Fire Station when a call came in from Abington, a municipality near Rockland, for assistance in fighting a fire.
  • Several Firefighter became insubordinate when Erickson ordered them to respond to the fire call causing a delay in Rockland’s response.
  • As a result of this delay in response to the Abington fire, the Fire Chief charged Erickson with failure to properly supervise Firefighters under his command.
  • Lieutenant Erickson was given a forty-eight hour unpaid suspension.
  • Following this disciplinary action against the Plaintiff, the Fire Chief again brought charges against Erickson based upon the November 2, 2016 incident. The charges this time alleged that Erickson had lied during the hearing when he stated that he had given orders to the Firefighter to respond to the Abington fire. These new charges were “allegedly” based upon the statements of two Firefighters present on November 2 to the Fire Chief.
  • The Town Administrator conducted another trumped-up hearing on April 10, 2017, and found the evidence against the Plaintiff creditable and issued him a thirty-day suspension without pay.
  • From this decision, Lieutenant Erickson appealed to the Civil Service Commission.
  • [The Commission concluded] “this case is a stark and troubling example of disparate treatment. A firefighter whose son sits on the Board of Selectmen and served with the Fire Chief on the Fire Station Building Committee faced no formal discipline for: a) engaging in insubordination; and b) providing what appear to be less than credible responses during an internal investigation.  On the other hand, Lt. Erickson, the only minority firefighter in the Rockland Fire Department, who recently exercised his right to request an investigation regarding whether certain firefighters were complying with a civil service requirement related to place of residence, was investigated and disciplined (twice) for issues related to the same incident. For all of the above reasons, Lt. Erickson’s appeal is hereby allowed; his thirty (30)-day suspension is overturned; and the Department shall restore all compensation or other rights to Lt. Erickson related to this thirty (30)-day suspension.”
  • Following the Plaintiffs Request for an Investigation, the Fire Chief began to publicly berate and humiliate the Plaintiff over any perceived shortcoming in his conduct as a Lieutenant in the Rockland Fire Department. This misconduct included the toleration of insubordination by Firefighters under the Plaintiffs command.
  • The Fire Chiefs verbal harassment on the Plaintiff included “in your face” shouting that the Fire Chief knew, or should have known, would trigger a re-occurrence of the Plaintiff’s PTSD.
  • As a direct result of the Fire Chiefs verbal harassment, the Plaintiff suffered several reoccurrences of PTSD that required him to take accrued sick time.
  • Because of the severity and debilitating effects of the PTSD, the Plaintiff sought 111F benefits from the Town of Rockland.
  • At a meeting of the Rockland Board of Selectmen to consider Plaintiff’s request for 111 F benefits, the Fire Chief and Town Counsel opposed the request.
  • The Selectmen, after obtaining Erickson’s medical records, voted to deny him 111 F benefits.
  • The Plaintiff’s medical care providers identified the Fire Chief’s verbal assaults on the Plaintiff as the trigger for the re-occurrences of his disabling PTSD. The Plaintiff was ordered by his medical care provider, Dr. Goldbaum, to have no contact with the Fire Chief until he determined Erickson’s symptoms were in remission.
  • Dr. Goldbaum further encouraged, as part of the Plaintiff’s therapeutic treatment to relieve his PTSD symptoms, the Plaintiff to work with NDMS/DMAT while out on FMLA leave to promote a more rapid recovery and return to work.
  • On March 9, 2017, Dr. Goldbaum faxed the Fire Chief a letter informing him that Erickson needed to apply for FMLA leave and that ADA accommodations would be required when the Plaintiff returned to work. The letter from Dr. Goldbaum also enclosed Erickson’s orders from NDMS/DMAT for deployment on April 3, 2017.
  • On March 13, 2017, the Fire Chief ordered the Plaintiff not to deploy in violation of the proscription against discrimination based upon military service under the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. (“USERRA”, 38 U.S.C. Sections 4301 et seq.)
  • On March 23, Dr. Goldbaum forwarded to the Fire Chief a letter containing four accommodations, which if implemented, would significantly reduce the possibility of a PTSD re-occurrence. The Fire Chief denied all four accommodations recommended by Dr. Goldbaum.
  • During all deployments prior to April 3, 2017, the Plaintiff would contact the Fire Chief’s office to arrange for his time on deployment to be credited to his vacation, personal or Lieu of Holiday time for payroll purposes.
  • On April 3, 2017, the Plaintiff could not reach the Fire Chiefs office and subsequently asked his Union President, Thomas Henderson, to inform the Fire Chief that he wanted to use his vacation, personal or Lieu of Holiday time during the period he was deployed. The Union President failed to act on the Plaintiffs request.
  • On July 20, 2017, the Plaintiff was served with a Notice of Contemplated Termination alleging that (1) he engaged in secondary employment on a sick day (2) that the Plaintiff received sick pay after being cleared for work (3) deployed in violation of the Fire Chiefs order (4) refused an order to provide payroll records from secondary employment and (5) failed to report for duty on June 28, 2017. This Notice comes just seven (7) days following the Civil Service Commission hearing on the Plaintiffs thirty-day suspension on July 13, 2017.
  • On August 8, 2017, the Town Administrator, Allan Chiocca, conducted a hearing on the Notice of Contemplated Termination. The Plaintiffs employment as a Rockland Firefighter was terminated as a result of the hearing.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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.
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