Court Refuses to Dismiss Deaf Applicant’s Discrimination Lawsuit

A lawsuit filed by a deaf applicant will be moving forward, despite a motion to dismiss by the defendant-fire department. Charles Hine sought to serve as a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Morningside Volunteer Fire Department, part of the Prince George’s County Fire Department. He previously served as a volunteer in Pennsylvania, despite his hearing impairment.

Following a medical examination, the County rejected his application based on his lack of hearing. Hine filed suit in federal court alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and a Prince George’s County local ordinance that prohibits discrimination. The suit named the County and the Morningside Volunteer Fire Department, Inc., as defendants.

The County filed a motion dismiss (and an alternative motion for summary judgment) alleging:

  • Hine failed to provide proper notice of these claims to the County, as required by the Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act
  • the County was not acting as an employer in relation to Hine’s application, and
  • Hine cannot show that he was qualified to receive any benefits, services, or activities from the County because he was not employed by the County.

US District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang rejected the County’s arguments concluding first that Hine satisfied the notice requirement, and secondly that he was entitled to pursue discovery on his disability claims to establish an employment relationship. Quoting from the decision:

  • The County… argues that Hine’s employment discrimination claims should be dismissed because the County is not an employer within the meaning of the applicable federal and state statutes.
  • Specifically, the County asserts that it is not an employer because it does not have sufficient control over MVFD volunteer firefighters and because the position sought by Hine was a volunteer position for which there was not sufficient compensation for such a firefighter to constitute an employee under those statutes.
  • In support of its arguments, the County references exhibits attached to its Motion, including an affidavit of a Deputy Fire Chief of the Prince George’s County Fire Department and numerous documents detailing the organizational structure, application process, and available benefits relating to volunteer firefighters in Prince George’s County.
  • Notably, both issues on which the County seeks summary judgment are the subject of factual disputes.
  • Hine argues that both Defendants are employers under the “joint employment doctrine,” which recognizes that “multiple entities may simultaneously be considered employers,” and pursuant to which a court must determine “which entities actually exercise control over an employee.”
  • Determining whether an entity exercises sufficient control to qualify as an employer is “a highly fact-specific” endeavor.
  • Likewise, a volunteer position, including a volunteer firefighter position, is not necessarily exempt from the coverage of employment discrimination statutes.
  • If “unpaid volunteers” receive certain benefits short of direct monetary compensation, those benefits may be sufficient to create an employment relationship.
  • The question of whether the specific benefits received are sufficient to create an employment relationship is a fact-based one that “cannot be found as a matter of law.”
  • Where the question of whether the County qualifies as an employer for purposes of the employment discrimination claims involves two fact-based inquiries for which the County asks the Court to rely on its submitted evidence, the Court agrees with Hine that discovery is necessary before it may resolve this question.
  • The Court will deny the Motion as to this issue.
  • The County argues that the Title II claim against it fails because Hine “cannot show that he was qualified to receive any benefits, services, or activities” offered by the County by virtue of the fact that he was “never employed by the County.”
  • Beyond the fact that Hine has alleged an employment relationship that cannot be resolved without discovery, Title II does not require such a relationship.
  • Construing the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff… the Court views the Title II claim as an alternative theory of liability, as compared to his employment discrimination claims under Title I and other statutes, under which Hine is arguing that even if service as a volunteer firefighter is not employment, it is a program or activity offered by the County to members of the community from which he was improperly excluded based on his disability.
  • Where the County has not identified any authority that would preclude Hine from pursuing such a theory, the Motion will be denied as to the Title II claim.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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