Idaho Firefighters Allege Right to Work Law Protects Against Discrimination of Union Officials

Two Idaho firefighters have filed suit claiming they are being harassed and discriminated against by their fire department in violation of the First Amendment and the state’s “right to work” law. Douwe De Boer and Klint Porter filed suit naming the Orchard Combat Training Center Fire and Emergency Services Department, the State of ldaho, the ldaho Military Division, and four chief officers.

The firefighters are employed at the Orchard Combat Training Center Fire and Emergency Services Department, and serve as union officials for IAFF Local 5214. De Boer serves as president of Local 5214 and Porter serves as vice-president. They claim as a result of their advocacy on behalf of their membership, they have been subjected to close scrutiny by their superiors, reprimanded for matters that other have not, and threatened with suspension and termination for pretextual reasons.

The complaint alleges retaliation in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment’s right to freedom of association; retaliation in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment’s right to freedom of speech; and a state law count of violating Idaho’s right to work law. For those not familiar with right to work laws, they are generally viewed as being an anti-labor statute that protects employees from being forced to join or pay dues to a labor organization by prohibiting union security agreements.

What is interesting is that the firefighters’ complaint flips the language of Idaho’s right to work law upside down, by alleging that it prohibits management from discriminating against them on account of their union activities.

Here is the language of the applicable provision:

CHAPTER 20 RIGHT TO WORK

44-2001.  Declaration of public policy. It is hereby declared to be the public policy of the state of Idaho, in order to maximize individual freedom of choice in the pursuit of employment and to encourage an employment climate conducive to economic growth, that the right to work shall not be subject to undue restraint or coercion. The right to work shall not be infringed or restricted in any way based on membership in, affiliation with, or financial support of a labor organization or on refusal to join, affiliate with, or financially or otherwise support a labor organization.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Defendants have unlawfully infringed on and restricted Plaintiffs’ right to work based on their membership in and affiliation with Local 5214, which is a labor organization under the meaning of Idaho Code Section 44-2001.
  • For specific example, Defendants have retaliated against and issued pretextual discipline against Plaintiffs and prevented them from receiving their scheduled annual salary step increases in 2021, based on their membership in and affiliation with Local 5214.
  • The actions, omissions, and decisions in retaliating against Plaintiffs on the part of Defendants were in retaliation for Plaintiffs’ exercise of their lawful rights to freely associate with Local 5214.
  • These actions, omissions, and decisions of Defendants were designed to cause, have caused, and will continue to cause Plaintiffs to lose wages, compensation, entitlements, and rights, and to coerce Plaintiffs and other Department employees to refrain from affiliating with and/or financially supporting Local 5214 or otherwise forfeit their rights as guaranteed by the Idaho Code §§ 44-2001 to -2014.
  • As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ foregoing actions, omissions, and decisions, Plaintiffs suffered damages for which Defendants are individually, jointly, and or severally and fully liable to Plaintiffs, including but not limited to lost wages, harm to their reputation, humiliation, and emotional and mental suffering, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

The complaint seeks injunctive relief and monetary damages. It was originally filed in state court last month, and removed by the defendants due to the federal constitutional issues. 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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