Deaf Idaho Firefighter Claims Termination Was Discrimination

A deaf Idaho volunteer firefighter who was terminated for insubordination in 2019 has filed suit claiming disability discrimination under state and federal law. Matthew Burgoyne filed suit today against the Rock Creek Firefighters Association, Inc. and the Rock Creek Rural Fire Protection District accusing both entities of discriminating against him on account of his “deafness”.

Burgoyne joined the department in November, 2017. According to the complaint, “Defendants discriminated against him due to his disability of deafness by, including but not limited to, failing to provide reasonable accommodation and appropriate auxiliary aids and services, abusing him verbally and mentally, treating him differently and inferior to nondisabled firefighters, and terminating him in July 2019 based on his disability.”

The stated reason for Burgoyne’s termination was “multiple counts of insubordination” including disobeying a direct order from his fire chief to stop texting the dispatch center, SIRCOMM. His termination notice from the chief stated: “You chose to continue to text SIRCOMM even though I told you multiple times that did not need to happen. Your actions disrupted the operations of a highly stressful dispatch center.”

The complaint denies that Burgoyne was insubordinate and contends he had permission to talk to other agencies including SIRCOMM.

Among the factual allegations:

  • Mr. Burgoyne was a competent firefighter who was able to perform essential functions of his job; he completed approximately 60 classes, which is over 160 hours of training. He also responded to approximately 50 calls.
  • As part of Mr. Burgoyne’s job, he had to attend staff meetings with his supervisors and coworkers to discuss various information that the firefighters need to know to perform their duties and for their safety.
  • Mr. Burgoyne requested reasonable accommodation, such as an ASL interpreter, to enable effective communication during these staff meetings.
  • However, Defendants ignored and refused Mr. Burgoyne’s requests for accommodation for these meetings.
  • As part of Mr. Burgoyne’s job, he had to receive various trainings to perform his duties and for his safety.
  • Mr. Burgoyne requested reasonable accommodation to enable effective communication, such as an ASL interpreter, for these trainings.
  • However, Defendants refused Mr. Burgoyne’s requests for accommodation for these trainings.
  • Mr. Burgoyne was also treated differently and lesser than other firefighters. For example:
  • He was put on standby on most fire calls. He was not allowed to do certain jobs while new firefighters were allowed, although he had certificates and the new firefighters did not.
  • At one mutual aid call with Twin Falls fire department, he was asked to stay in the command truck. He had to sit in the truck for four (4) hours while even the new firefighters were working on the scene. All he did was fill up an air bottle back to the station and clean up the scene after. When Mr. Burgoyne politely asked Assistant Chief Greg Vawser about why he was told to stay in the truck the whole time, Assistant Chief Vawser got upset for questioning his command and gave Mr. Burgoyne a warning.
  • Mr. Burgoyne tried to work with Captain Jason Freeman about working in a wildland fire fighting job and getting a certification for the job, but his requests were ignored.
  • During a flashover training, everyone is equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus (“SCBA”). When one of the captains was speaking through the mask to him and he had to ask others without masks to explain to him what was going on.
  • When this happened, the captain and other firefighters laughed at him for not understanding.
  • He was not allowed to drive big trucks although he was a truck driver for thirteen years with a clean record.
  • Mr. Burgoyne put up his name along with “Deaf Firefighter” on his locker to make him feel proud. A couple days later, Captain Stacey Thomas ripped the label off from the locker without any explanation.
  • Mr. Burgoyne was repeatedly subject to verbal abuse by his colleagues who made discriminatory and derogatory remarks at him, such as “retarded.”
  • When Mr. Burgoyne tried to stand up for himself, he was often dismissed and laughed at by Defendants’ employees.
  • Because of the discrimination he experienced by Defendants and its employees, Mr. Burgoyne suffered extreme emotional distress and depression. Because of the discrimination, he had suicidal thoughts and had to get professional help.
  • He was diagnosed as having a personality disorder that cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

This is the second suit filed by a deaf firefighter in the last month. Maryland firefighter Charles Hine filed suit on October 9, 2020 against Prince George’s County.

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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