Maryland Medic Loses Wrongful Termination Suit

A Maryland paramedic has lost his bid to have his termination overturned. Norris Phillip Donohoe Jr. was terminated from his employment for the Town of Berlin last year following allegations by two EMS coworkers of harassment.

Donohoe claims he has never been disciplined in 23 years with the Berlin Fire Company and that the allegations came as a shock to him.  He also alleges that the town of Berlin lacks the authority to discipline or fire him because he works for the fire company not the town.

To understand the legal landscape, Donohoe is an employee of the Berlin Fire Company. Under a 2009 agreement between the fire company and the town, fire company EMS personnel were leased to the town in order to make them eligible for state retirement and benefits.

The town claims the “lease” arrangement makes the paid EMS personnel subject to the same personnel policies as other town employees. Donohoe disagrees claiming that he reports to the president of the Berlin Fire Company and the fire chief. At issue appears to be the town’s anti-harassment policies and the authority of HR to investigate and discipline violations.

Donohoe was terminated last May, and filed suit last July naming Mayor Gee Williams, Berlin’s five council members, and Town Administrator Tony Carson. The situation became so tenuous that in August the town council voted to suspended all payments to the fire company

Yesterday, Worcester County Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell granted the town’s motion to dismiss the case. News reports indicate that the judge based his ruling on rather peculiar grounds: sovereign immunity.

Having not seen the ruling, I am at a loss to explain how sovereign immunity (normally raised as a defense in tort actions) would find its way into a wrongful termination case, let alone serve as an absolute defense. Most states have severely limited the application of sovereign immunity – with a number of states finding it to be unconstitutional. Furthermore, most wrongful termination cases are based on contract law – an area where sovereign immunity long ago ceased to be an issue.

Here is more on this ruling.

Donohoe’s attorney Robin Cockey is vowing to appeal.

Incidentally – if sovereign immunity applies to municipalities in Maryland for contract-based claims… why would anyone risk doing business with a municipality? With sovereign immunity applied to contracts a municipality would effectively be immune from having to pay the debts they incur. The thought of it is so bizarre – that there must be something else going on. If any of our Maryland friends have inside info – please fill us in.

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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