Virginia Captain Claims Political Retaliation

A Lynchburg fire captain has filed suit against the fire department, the city, and three city officials claiming breach of contract and a violation of his First Amendment rights. Martin Misjuns filed suit last week in the Circuit Court for the City of Lynchburg. Named in the suit are Mayor Mary Jane Tousignant Dolan, Vice-Mayor Beau Wright, and City Manager Reid Wodicka.

The suit alleges Misjuns was harmed by several acts orchestrated by city officials and ranking officers, including being denied a pay raise, denied a training opportunity necessary for promotion to battalion chief, and subjected to an “interrogation” over his off-duty social media activities. The suit contends that city officials retaliated against him because of Misjuns’ activism as a union representative with IAFF Local 1146 and because he is a republican ward chairman. Local 1146 supported republican candidates in the 2020 election for city council, while Dolan and Wright are both democrats.

In regards to the social media postings, the complaint states:

  • Plaintiff maintains two Facebook social media pages.
  • One is a “personal page” identifying him as “Marty Misjuns.”
  • The other is a “public figure” page, identifying Plaintiff as “Martin J. Misjuns, Ward I Chair – Lynchburg Republican City Committee.”
  • Neither page identifies Plaintiff as a Fire Captain or a city employee.
  • On both his “personal” and “public figure” pages, Plaintiff routinely posts political messages.
  • On February 1, Plaintiff posted a “meme” on his “public figure” page.
  • The meme read, “In the beginning, God created Adam & Eve. Adam could never be a Madam. Eve could never become Steve. Anyone who tells you otherwise defies the one true God.” The meme expressed Plaintiff’s deeply held religious beliefs.
  • On January 26, 2021, Plaintiff posted on his “public figure” page four editorial cartoons drawn by cartoonist A.F. Branco. Two of the cartoons depict a person with facial hair coming out of a women’s bathroom to the consternation of female figures drawn nearby. One depicts a large person with facial hair and dressed in women’s clothing saying, “Hey federal government! Get out of our bedroom … We need you in the bathroom.”
  • The fourth depicts an exaggeratedly large person with an “Equality Act” t-shirt playing sports against an exaggeratedly small woman who yells, “Not fair!” Above the cartoons, Plaintiff posted the statement, “#BidenErasedWomen – Coming to your daughter’s high school locker room in the near future.”
  • The post is clearly satirical, and clearly intended to express opposition to the “Equality Act,” which would require an end to separate-sex bathrooms and locker rooms in school facilities, including public, private, and religious schools.
  • The advisability of the “Equality Act,” or the lack thereof, is clearly a matter of public concern, which has generated massive opposition from participants in girls’ sports programs and persons concerned about the effects of the Act on religious freedom.
  • The cartoons are protected free speech.
  • No less protected is Plaintiff’s right to re-post the cartoons.
  • No less protected is Plaintiff’s right to add his own personal comments which reveals his intent in reposting the editorial cartoons – his belief that the Act should be opposed out of concern that it will impose severe costs on women and girls in restroom facilities and sports programs.
  • However, on March 25, 2021 and, on information and belief, in response to instructions from one or more of Dolan, Wright and Wodicka, [the Fire Chief] sent Plaintiff a letter ordering him to attend an “interrogation” on Monday, March 29, to discuss several “citizen complaints” attacking Plaintiff for posting the cartoons and the meme.
  • On information and belief, there were a relative handful of “citizen complaints,” and most of those came from individuals affiliated with the LGBTQ group “Hill City Pride.”
  • [The Fire Chief] also informed Plaintiff that he was under investigation for social media statements making political criticism of Dolan, after Dolan sought to have city staff retaliate against Plaintiff for posting the cartoons.
  • [The Fire Chief] cited language in the “complaints” calling Plaintiff “vile,” “hateful,” “bigoted,” “dehumanizing,” “hostile,” and “dangerous” for posting the cartoons and the meme.
  • Subjecting Plaintiff to an “interrogation” and placing a report on the interrogation in his employee file constitutes adverse employment action, all based exclusively on Plaintiff’s private, political speech on matters of public concern.
  • None of the “citizen complaints” alleged that Plaintiff had in fact exercised any partiality toward anyone in the conduct of his job as a firefighter, or questioned any acts or statements made by Plaintiff in the course of performance of his job duties.
  • In response to the “citizen’s complaints,” Mayor Dolan, City Manager Wodicka, and Vice Mayor Wright began to conspire together to deny Plaintiff his constitutional rights to express his deeply held religious beliefs and political views on matters of public concern.
  • Dolan and Wright are partisan Democrats, while Plaintiff’s “public figure” page identifies him as Ward I Chair for the Lynchburg Republican City Committee.
  • On January 29, 2021, Dolan sent an email to Wodicka, stating, “This needs to be addressed! We need to have zero tolerance for this type of activity on the part of City employees.
  • I know that this is not the first time this person has displayed questionable if not unconscionable rhetorical post [sic] on his social media platforms …. Please let’s talk about a meeting to discuss.” A copy of Dolan’s email is attached as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 8.
  • Dolan has continued to press her campaign to convince other City leadership to retaliate against Plaintiff for expressing his deeply held religious beliefs. In an email to “citizen complainant” Michael Kittinger, Dolan wrote, “I was speechless when I saw what Mr. Misjuns posted. I am totally in agreement with you and do not support or will not tolerate this type of malicious rhetoric. No question his comments are unconscionable, and City Leadership needs to take action.”
  • Further, Defendants’ retaliation against Plaintiff stands in stark contrast to their treatment of [The Fire Chief], who attended and supported a protest put on by the group “Black Lives Matter” (“BLM”) on July 4, 2020, at Miller Park in Lynchburg.
  • [The Fire Chief] attended and participated in the protest in full LFD uniform.
  • Unlike Plaintiff’s actions, which he took out of uniform and on personal time, [The Fire Chief]’s actions were in violation of the City’s “Employment Policies & Procedures” handbook.
  • The handbook states in Chapter 7, Article I, Section H. l, “City employees may participate in political activities while they are off duty, out of uniform and not on the premises or their employment with the City.”
  • A photograph of [the Fire Chief] in uniform at the protest is attached as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 11.

Misjuns is seeking $450,000 in damages and a handful of court orders including one that would invalidate any disciplinary action that may come from the March 29, 2021 interrogation. Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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