Suit Claims Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District Retaliated

A woman who was terminated from an administrative manager position with an Arizona fire district has filed suit against the board, three board members, and a former fire chief alleging retaliation and disability discrimination. Karen Jackson filed suit in federal court naming the Lake Mohave Ranchos Fire District; board members Phyllis Aitken, Douglas Braaten, and Susan De Lara; and former Fire Chief Timothy Bonnee.

Jackson, who suffers from multiple disabling conditions, claims that her position was eliminated after she raised concerns about improper practices by Chief Bonnee. As explained in the complaint:

  • Jackson suffers from several disabling conditions including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, severe anxiety disorder and depression.
  • Jackson’s PTSD can manifest itself in, among other things, heightened reactions, irritability, severe anxiety, mistrust, hypervigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, lack of concentration, and generalized fear.
  • Jackson’s depression can result in long-lasting sadness or irritability, extreme highs and lows in mood, hopelessness, severe social withdrawal and suicidal thoughts.
  • Jackson’s severe anxiety can result in, among other things, insomnia, palpitations, racing or unwanted thoughts and major digestive issues.
  • The combination of Jackson’s impairments substantially affect her ability to, among other things, think, sleep, concentrated and interact with others.
  • In or about October of 2017, Jackson made an ADA request for accommodation to then Fire Chief Tony DeMaio.
  • After an interactive process, DeMaio, with the Board’s knowledge, ultimately agreed to allow Jackson to perform her duties from home.
  • As a result of the accommodation, Jackson was able to continue to perform the essential functions of her job.
  • DeMaio retired in or about May of 2019.
  • In October of 2019, Jackson discussed with then Board chair Debora Cass her concerns about [Chief] Bonnee’s actions, misrepresentations and omissions.
  • At the November 2019 Board meeting, the Board, with Bonnee’s consent, changed Jackson’s job title to Administrative Manager and gave her a raise.
  • In December of 2019, Jackson learned that Bonnee had continued to spend District funds without going through a verification process required by the Board, and the fact that Bonnee had been dishonest to the Board with regard to several matters of public concern in executive session, and she reported these matters to Cass.
  • In or about April 2020, Bonnee was placed on administrative leave.
  • At the May 8, 2020 meeting, Bonnee’s employment was terminated for cause
  • After Bonnee’s termination, however, Bonnee, Aitken, and two former Board members, Charlotte Kiffer and Ellen Reh-Bower, who had on numerous occasions expressed anger about the fact that Jackson was allowed to work from home, began a campaign to tarnish Jackson’s reputation.
  • Among other things, Bonnee and DeLara made false and defamatory statements about Jackson at public meetings and Bonnee and Aitken made false and defamatory statements regarding Jackson to the Mohave County Sheriff’s Department.
  • For instance, DeLara and Bonnee publicly and falsely claimed that Jackson had failed to perform significant work duties, such as setting up retirement and insurance accounts for Bonnee.
  • Bonnie and Aitken also suggested that Jackson had stolen time and money from the District, had conflicts of interest with respect to the District and her husband’s workplace and had tampered with a District computer.
  • The group’s actions were so extreme and disturbing that at the September 25, 2020 Board meeting, the Board majority voted to direct its legal counsel to pursue an injunction against harassment on Jackson’s behalf.
  • De Lara, who had been appointed to the Board in August, 2020, and who is a close friend of Bonnee, Aitken, Kiffer and Reh-Bower, voted against it.
  • Aitken subsequently ran for a Board position and on November 3, 2020, and she, and her close friend Braaten were elected to the Board. Their terms began on December 1, 2020.
  • On December 7, 2020, a special Board meeting was held, and without having placed the matter on the agenda, the Board majority, Aitken, De Lara and Braaten, voted to eliminate Jackson’s position, and create a customer service clerk position, with similar duties.
  • Aitken, De Lara and Braaten further decided that those duties had to be performed at the District office.
  • In raising issues about Bonnee’s failures to adhere to Board requirements, squandering of District monies, failures to properly maintain records, and dishonesty with respect to his background, Jackson spoke on matters of public concern, and was protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • In speaking on matters of public concern, Jackson spoke as a citizen and not a part of her duties as an employee of the District.
  • Jackson’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor in Defendants’ retaliatory actions.
  • Jackson was a qualified individual with a disability who, with accommodations, could perform the essential functions of her job.
  • The District knew of Jackson’s disabilities.
  • The District eliminated Jackson’s position and created a similar position for which it specifically required that the duties were to be performed in the office.
  • At least a motivating factor in the decision to eliminate Jackson’s position and to require the duties of the new position to be performed in the office was to eliminate the need to accommodate Jackson’s disability in violation of the ADA.

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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