Wisconsin Firefighter Claims Termination Violates First Amendment

A Wisconsin firefighter who was terminated last year after he complained about the way he was treated by local police officers, has filed suit alleging his punishment violated his First Amendment rights. Matthew Donahue filed suit against the Village of Elm Grove, three chief officers, and the Police and Fire Commission.

According to the complaint, Donahue’s problem began after he had a disagreement with his local pastor, leading police to visit his house to issue a no contact order. Donahue accused one of the police officers of being unprofessional and later filed a formal complaint about what occurred. After efforts to mediate his complaint failed, he sought to file a complaint against the church contending they were deducting funds from his bank account without his permission.

When the police again failed to investigate his allegations, he filed a formal complaint with the Police and Fire Commission. Donahue, who according to the complaint was a volunteer, was then suspended from the fire department. Due to COVID concerns, scheduling investigative interviews became a contentious issue with Donahue wanting to answer questions remotely and the department ordering him to appear in person.

When a compromise could not be reached, Donahue opted to appeal his temporary suspension to the Police and Fire Commission. That prompted the fire department to file formal charges. Quoting from the complaint:

  • On June 26, 2020, the Fire Department filed its Statement of Charges against Donahue with the Commission.
  • The Fire Department had not interviewed Donahue prior to filing charges.
  • Donahue communicated to the Commission that he had experienced “inappropriate and unprofessional actions” by the law firms representing the Village and Commission.
  • Donahue also requested a telephonic hearing to discuss administrative matters. Donahue’s request was denied.
  • The Commission proceeded with the Hearing on the Village’s Statement of Charges against Donahue on August 14, 2020.
  • Donahue was not present for the hearing because he had not received notice of the hearing.
  • The Commission issued a Decision and Order on the Disciplinary Charges against Donahue on or about August 26, 2020.
  • The Commission determined there was “just cause” to terminate Donahue’s employment with the Fire Department under Wis. Stat. 62.13(5)(e) and (em).
  • The Fire Department sent Donahue a letter dated August 26, 2020 advising him that the Commission had conducted a hearing on the disciplinary charges brought against him on August 14, 2020 and terminated his employment as of August 14, 2020.

Donahue appealed the Commission’s termination decision to Waukesha County Circuit Court. He then filed suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin alleging his First Amendment Rights were violated. Specifically he contends his discipline was “designed to punish and/or retaliate against Donahue for having expressed his complaints, opinions, and concerns in violation of the First Amendment.” He is also alleging several state law claims including abuse of process and malicious prosecution.

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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