Termination of RI Firefighter Upheld

A Rhode Island firefighter who was terminated after exhausting his accrued sick leave, has lost his federal court lawsuit alleging breach of contract, whistleblower violations, and a violation of his First Amendment rights. Fred Melnyk was a firefighter for the Town of Little Compton prior to his termination in 2019.

In 2017, two problems occurred that contributed to the litigation. First, Melnyk’s fire chief proposed discipline against him for allowing a part-time firefighter to drive an EMS unit to the hospital. At a meeting with the chief, the union and members of the town council to discuss a compromise, Melnyk raised what he believed was a greater safety concern: that apparatus were 14 months out of inspection. He ultimately was not disciplined. Second, Melnyk was passed over for promotion to lieutenant, resulting in his filing a grievance over a “corrupt interviewing process.”

The next thing that occurred was a physical altercation between Melnyk and another firefighter in the firehouse on March 26, 2018. Following the altercation, Melnyk filed a criminal complaint with the police, but charges were not brought. Four days later, Melnyk claims he “was confronted by two fellow firefighters because he had pressed charges for the March 26 incident.”

Melnyk claimed the confrontation caused him to experience chest pains, resulting in his transport to the hospital. Thereafter, he sought injured-on-duty status claiming he suffered a work-related injury associated with job-related stress. The town denied his coverage and placed him on sick leave. A grievance followed.

After being evaluated by three doctors under a process agreed to by the union, Melnyk was denied IOD status. His sick leave was exhausted in February, 2019 and when unable to return to work in March, 2019 he was terminated.

Melnyk sued claiming breach of the collective bargaining agreement (not following the proper procedure for selecting doctors); breach of the implied obligation of good faith and fair dealing; violation of Rhode Island’s Whistleblower Protection Act over the concerns he raised over the inspection status of the trucks and for reporting the altercation to the police; and violation of his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for reporting the altercation to the police and his complaints about the promotional process.

US District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy rejected all of Melnyk’s claims. As explained in the decision:

  • Mr. Melnyk alleges that the defendants breached the MOA, of which he is a third-party beneficiary.
  • The evidence… demonstrates that the parties agreed that a contractual condition.
  • Thus, by mutual agreement, they [agreed] that the Town and the Union [would] agree on a neutral third physician. They then did so.
  • As such, the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the plaintiff’s claim for breach of contract (Count I) is granted.
  • Because the Court finds that Mr. Melnyk cannot, as a matter of law, support a claim for breach of contract, his secondary claim that the defendants breached the obligation of good faith and fair dealing implied in the contract must also fail.
  • Mr. Melnyk alleges that his termination in March 2019 was a retaliatory action in violation of the Rhode Island Whistleblowers’ Protection Act (“RIWPA”).
  • Even assuming for the moment Mr. Melnyk makes a prima facie case under RIWPA, he has not offered evidence to properly rebut the defendants’ non-discriminatory reason for his termination: that by March 2019 he was out of any leave time but could not report for duty.
  • The plaintiff offers a series of events that he argues demonstrates that the defendants did “everything in their power” to deny him IOD benefits and to punish him for making his reports.
  • But each of these, collectively or individually, fall flat when compared to the evidence.
  • In all, Mr. Melnyk has failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact that would demonstrate that the reason for his termination was pretextual or that there was any causal relationship between his purportedly protected activity and his termination.
  • In his final claim, brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Mr. Melnyk asserts that Chief Petrin and President Mushen retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
  • When determining whether an adverse employment action violates a public employee’s free speech rights under the First Amendment, the First Circuit employs a three-part test: (1) the employee must speak “as a citizen on a matter of public concern”; (2) the court must “balance … the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees”; and (3) “the employee must show that the protected expression was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment decision.”
  • Mr. Melnyk offers two statements in support of his claim of retaliation in violation of his right to free speech.
  • First, his statements that the process of the promotions to lieutenant made in September and October 2017 were made improperly.
  • Second, his report to the Little Compton Police that he was assaulted by another firefighter in March 2018.
  • The focus of either statement, however, was not of public concern but of Mr. Melnyk’s personal interest.
  • While his grievance regarding the lieutenant promotion process asserts a “corrupt interviewing process,” the focus of it for Mr. Melnyk, a candidate for the position who was not selected, was “primarily directed to remedy a personal situation.”
  • Further, Mr. Melnyk’s report of the claimed assault regarded a personal dispute between him and another employee, not a matter of public concern. His written statement of the incident is focused on his description of the other firefighter’s combative, uncooperative attitude and the assault against him.
  • His argument in this lawsuit that he made the statement as a matter of the public concern that the other firefighter’s illegal behavior delayed a response to a rescue call is a concern not raised in his written account and is a post hoc attempt to make this personal situation a public matter. It therefore is not afforded First Amendment protection.
  • Because neither of Mr. Melnyk’s statements primarily address matters of public concern, but instead relate to matters of his personal interest, they are not protected speech and his claim under § 1983 must fail. The defendants’ Motion on Count IV therefore is granted.

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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