St. Paul District Chief Claims He Was Forced Out for Whistleblowing

A district chief who was assigned to the St. Paul Fire Department’s training academy until he retired last December, has filed suit in federal court claiming he was retaliated and constructively terminated. District Chief Jovan Palmieri filed suit yesterday in US District Court for the District of Minneapolis.

The suit named the city, Fire Chief Barton Inks, and Assistant Chief Michael Gaede as defendants. The suit alleges that Chief Palmieri reported numerous deficiencies in staffing at the academy, and complained that Chiefs Inks and Gaede interfered with recruit training.

  • Plaintiff observed Defendants Inks and Gaede engage in multiple incidents of interference and obstruction in the proper and safe training of SPFD firefighter trainees.
  • Inks and Gaede’s conduct, directives, and statements resulted in the creation of a dangerous working situation for SPFD’s firefighters and the dangerous undermining of the firefighting capabilities of the SPFD.
  • The actions and statements of Inks and Gaede created public safety risks for Saint Paul’s citizens, businesses, and entities, as well as on-the-job health and safety risks for Saint Paul’s firefighters.
  • In the 2016 training academy, Inks intervened on behalf of poorly performing recruits who were creating serious safety concerns for the training staff.
  • As a result of Inks’ interference for personal reasons, poorly performing recruits were allowed to complete the training process.
  • This created a serious risk of injury or death to fellow firefighters and a risk to the public.
  • Inks and Gaede continued interfering with the review process of training academy recruits in this manner through 2019.
  • For example, on May 8, 2018, Plaintiff met with Gaede to discuss Inks and Gaede overriding training staff recommendations and reviews of poorly performing recruits.
  • Critically, Inks and Gaede overrode Plaintiff’s recommendations about a recruit who panicked in live fire exercises and could not even hold a standard attack fire hose line while it was flowing with water.
  • When Plaintiff explained that this recruit was unsafe and created a risk for the department and the public, Gaede disagreed and told Plaintiff he had a problem with what Plaintiff was reporting. Gaede impliedly threatened Plaintiff to keep quiet.
  • In a number of instances, the recruits on whose behalves Inks intervened had personal connections to this high-ranking fire officer. In nearly all instances of Inks and Gaede overriding
  • Plaintiff’s and training staff’s recommendations, the recruits graduated from the academy against the advice of Plaintiff and the training division staff.
  • This endangered their fellow firefighters, the individual recruit, and the public who the department was sworn to protect.

The complaint cites numerous examples of petty indignities to which Chief Palmieri was subjected, such as when he was promoted to district chief in 2018 he was not given the customary small ceremony; he was not issued chief officer turnout gear forcing him to wear captain’s turnout gear; not being assigned a take-home vehicle; being denied the opportunity to work shift over-time like other district chiefs; and being required to punch-in and punch out.

The complaint alleges the retaliatory conduct culminated in Chief Palmieri being passed over for promotion to Deputy Chief of Training, coupled with the elimination of the Training Officer position that he had served in since 2018. As a result, he claims he was forced to leave the department on December 6, 2019.

The suit alleges a violation of Chief Palmieri’s due process rights, a violation of his First Amendment Rights, a violation of Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act, and discrimination under the Minnesota Occupational Health and Safety Act.

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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