Suit By Retired Alabama Chief Dismissed

A former District Chief with the Montgomery Fire Department who agreed to retire in 2010 as part of the settlement of a gender discrimination suit, has lost a second suit she filed in 2018 claiming that the fire chief made derogatory comments about her. District Chief Jennifer Jennings Bennett first sued the city in 2008 alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.

As part of a court mediated settlement of the 2008 suit, Chief Bennett agreed to retire and refrain from “speaking in a derogatory nature regarding the Montgomery Fire Department, its administration or the administration of the City of Montgomery. She further agrees to keep confidential the terms of this settlement agreement.” The city agreed to “provide a neutral reference regarding [Chief Bennett] to any potential employers, to refrain from speaking in a derogatory manner about [her], and to the extent allowed by law, to keep confidential the terms of this settlement agreement.

As explained by the court in her 2018 lawsuit:

  • Nearly nine years later, during an MFD meeting on February 15, 2018, [Fire Chief Milford] Jordan, the Fire Chief of the Montgomery Fire Department, made derogatory statements regarding Plaintiff and her presentation of a proposed retirement plan to MFD employees prior to her own retirement in 2010.
  • Specifically, Defendant Jordan stated that Plaintiff “created negativity” in the department, that she “ruined retirements,” that she “misinformed” the employees regarding the retirement program, that she and others “are not doing so well in life,” and that she was demoted while at the MFD.
  • After learning of these comments by Defendant Jordan, Plaintiff filed this suit bringing the following four claims against Defendants: (1) a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging Defendants violated her “right under the Fourteenth Amendment to the [United States] Constitution to be free to enjoy the protection of the orders of the federal courts such as the mediated agreement in this action,” (2) a retaliation claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 based on Defendant Jordan’s “improper discriminatory conduct toward her,” (3) a state law claim of defamation/slander, and (4) a state law claim of breach of contract.
  • Plaintiff seeks as relief compensatory and punitive damages against Defendants in an amount to be determined by a jury, an award of reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs.
  • In response, Defendants assert a counterclaim against Plaintiff alleging breach of contract. Defendants contend Plaintiff failed to abide by the Agreement by speaking in a derogatory nature regarding the MFD, its administration or the City’s administration in relation to her lawsuit and by failing to keep the terms of the Agreement confidential.

US Magistrate Judge Jerusha T. Adams rejected Chief Bennett’s federal claims, holding:

  • The Agreement contains no language establishing that it created rights enforceable under the Constitution or laws of the United States.
  • In addition, the Court has not found, and Plaintiff has not provided, any precedent establishing that a settlement agreement reached in a federal case creates a constitutional right, that a breach of a settlement agreement in a federal case is a per se constitutional violation, or that such a settlement agreement is protected under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Accordingly, Plaintiff’s claim fails as a matter of law because the Agreement did not establish a federal right which is enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

The court refused to exercise jurisdiction over Chief Bennett’s two remaining state law claims, leaving her free to refile those claims in state court. Here is a copy of the decision:

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.
x

Check Also

New Jersey Firefighter Accuses Deputy Chief Of COVID-Related Race Discrimination

An Asian-American firefighter is suing his fire department and a deputy chief for discrimination over comments the chief made related to COVID19. Firefighter Timothy Burkhard filed suit against the City of Plainfield, New Jersey and Deputy Fire Chief Pietro Martino.

Philly Not Liable for Fire Deaths

The City of Philadelphia will not have to pay damages to the estates of three people who died in a fire in 2018, according to a US Third Circuit of Appeals ruling handed down today. While the facts may have made for a rather compelling case, in the end the law was on the city’s side.