Texas Firefighter Recruit Loses Retaliation Suit

A Texas firefighter recruit who was injured and resigned from the fire academy, has lost a civil rights lawsuit contending he was forced to resign in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights. Bryce Baker filed suit earlier this year against the City of Arlington alleging he was harassed and badgered into resigning.

Baker was injured on April 11, 2018, which incidentally was the second day of the fire academy. According to the lawsuit:

  • Bryce Baker was hired as a fireman by the City of Arlington to begin on April 9, 2018
  • On April 11, 2018, Baker suffered a fractured ankle injury during a run.
  • Baker attempted to push through this injury because of his “dream of becoming a firefighter,” but this only worsened the injury, leading Captain Campbell, in a private meeting with Baker, to attempt to force Baker into resigning “instead of following normal procedures.”
  • Prior to Baker’s injury, Lieutenant Nevin Price began harassing Baker for his involvement in a class action lawsuit against the City.
  • In one instance, Lt. Price harassingly questioned Baker in front of the entire class of seventeen recruits regarding Baker’s thoughts on the civil action lawsuit, and at one point demanded that Baker “be straight” with him and stated, “I know you were part of a possible class action against the City.”
  • Lt. Price taunted Baker in front of the class by stating that Baker “needed to make some MAN decisions,” while making him stand at attention for “hour long PT.”
  • Lt. Price then wrote Baker up for failing to achieve the time run in which Baker was injured.
  • Baker alleges Lt. Price’s harassment continued and that he badgered Baker about his injury “despite City policy against harassment.”
  • In his Complaint, Baker defines harassment under this policy as: “verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual and that: a. Has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment;  b. Has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or c. Otherwise adversely affects an individual’s employment opportunities.”
  • As a result of this harassment and badgering, Baker “had no choice but to ‘resign.'”

Baker’s suit alleged a single count of retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment Rights. However, in granting the city’s motion to dismiss the suit, the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas concluded that Baker’s complaint made a fatal contradictory allegation: it alleged that the city was liable for Lt. Price’s harassment because he was carrying out an established “policy and procedure” (often referred to as Monell liability), while simultaneously alleging that Lt. Price’s behavior was so inappropriate that it violated the city’s anti-harassment policy. Quoting from the decision:

  • Arlington cannot be held liable under Monell because Baker actually pleaded a policy against the harassment Baker alleges.
  • Baker fails to state a Monell claim against Arlington because the only policy Baker pleaded is Arlington’s policy against the alleged harassment.
  • Indeed, Baker’s Complaint explicitly states that Lt. Price’s alleged harassment and badgering occurred “despite City policy against harassment.”
  • Baker then defines “harassment” by reference to Arlington’s policy.
  • Baker alleges that Lt. Price harassed and badgered him regarding a class action lawsuit in which Baker was involved as well as his ankle injury, which he claims led to his resignation.
  • However, this policy is not actionable under § 1983 because Baker does not allege it was the “moving force” behind the alleged violation of his constitutional right.
  • Further, Arlington cannot be held liable under § 1983 for an isolated incident involving one of its employees.
  • Under § 1983, “isolated unconstitutional actions by municipal employees will almost never trigger liability.”
  • Arlington makes this argument in its Motion to Dismiss when it states that Baker’s claims are “directed at a single former Arlington employee-a fire department trainer.
  • Baker fails to plead any facts that the alleged harassment and badgering were anything more than an isolated situation between one trainer and one employee.
  • These isolated acts of one employee do not constitute “widespread practice” and thus cannot be said to qualify as a custom under Monell.

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.
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