Court Rules Against Fired Tennessee Fire Chief

A federal court in Tennessee has ruled against a former fire chief who claimed his termination  last year violated his due process and 1st Amendment rights.

Cocke County Fire Chief William Smallwood was fired last March by County Mayor Crystal Ottinger. Chief Smallwood sued claiming the mayor failed to offer him a hearing as required by the Cocke County Fire Department Civil Service Board. He claimed the lack of a hearing violated his due process rights under the US and Tennessee constitutions. He also claimed his termination was politically motivated, in violation of his 1st Amendment Rights, and retaliation for his refusal to discipline a subordinate in violation of the rules governing the Civil Service Board.

US District Court Judge Curtis L. Collier did a very good job explaining why Chief Smallwood lacked a property-based interest in his employment, and thus could be dismissed without a hearing. That decision was premised upon Judge Collier’s conclusion that the Cocke County Fire Department Civil Service Board was created illegally, in violation of state law. As a result, Chief Smallwood was at-will employee who served at the pleasure of the mayor.

Judge Collier next addressed Chief Smallwood’s argument that he was entitled to a due process hearing based upon a liberty deprivation. Those in my discipline class – as well as fire law students in college level classes – may want to review the liberty-based due process explanation. To summarize the ruling, when an employee is terminated for reasons that could be stigmatizing, the employee may have a right to a “name-clearing” hearing. The big caveat to the right to a name clearing hearing is: the employee must request the hearing, and be denied in order to have an actionable claim. In this case, Chief Smallwood failed to request such a hearing.

The last major issue was Chief Smallwood’s allegation that his termination was politically-based, in violation of his 1st Amendment rights. As explained by the court:

  • Plaintiff further claims his termination was politically motivated. Specifically, he claimshe was subject to an unlawful “patronage dismissal”—discharged for his refusal to support Ottinger’s mayoral campaign and for his refusal to fire [Captain] Ellison for Ellison’s political beliefs.
  • This discharge, according to Plaintiff, violated his First Amendment rights.
  • As a general rule, patronage dismissals of public employees based upon political views or affiliations violate the employees’ First Amendment freedoms of political belief and association.
  • This general rule, however, protects only some public employees. The United States Supreme Court has held that those public employees holding “non-policymaking positions” are protected from politically motivated terminations; these individuals “usually have only limited responsibility and are therefore not in a position to thwart the goals of the in-party.”
  • The distinction between policymaking and non-policymaking positions is made on a caseby-case basis.
  • The Cocke County Fire Chief controls departmental policies, public outreach, the department budget and grant applications, disciplinary action, and emergency response procedures.
  • This broad “discretionary authority” is granted to a position “specifically named” in relevant state law; it is granted “with respect to the enforcement of that law;” and it is granted to “carry out . . . a policy of political concern”—the operation of one of the county’s primary emergency response institutions.
  • As such, the Court finds the Cocke County Fire Chief position falls firmly within [the category of policy-making].
  • Therefore, even assuming Plaintiff’s termination was indeed politically motivated, such a firing was not improper under the First Amendment.

Here is a copy of the decision: Smallwood v Cocke County

Fire law instructors may want to consider using this case for classes discussing due process, property and/or liberty interest) as well as political retaliation.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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